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When They Were Boys

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Lily and Tony Girardi sat in a room at the Department of Children and Families. A social worker, a woman they knew quite well, sat across from them at the table. She was talking, but Lily wasn’t listening. Her mind kept wandering to another time and place. She snapped back to reality when she felt Tony kick her under the table.
“---is a really great kid, but has never had consistent love and stability,” Cassie was saying. “His parents divorced when he was two. He hasn’t seen his father since, and his mother just can’t provide for him properly. He’s harboring a lot of anger right now, and we haven’t yet found a foster home that’s willing to give him the time and patience he needs. But...the second his file hit my desk, I thought of you guys. I really think this could be a good fit…”
“Is Mom ever going to regain custody?” Tony asked.
“Honestly? Probably not,” Cassie responded with a sigh. “She also swears up and down that she’s never going to sign her rights over, so I honestly don’t know whether he will ever be up for adoption or not.”
Tony looked over at Lily. His brown eyes held her blue eyed gaze.
“So...what do you think? Can we do this again?”
Lily stood up and looked through the window at the boy in the room next to them. He was sitting slouched in an armchair. His face was sullen and stubborn, but his eyes...his eyes were frightened and lost. Lily took him in. His legs seemed long for his age, and his skin was slightly bronzed. His hair came just above his shoulder. It was black and wavy, and appeared to be silky. Lily couldn’t stop looking at his eyes. They were an interesting shade of blue, and although they appeared dull right now, she knew there was a spark in there somewhere. She turned back to Tony.
“I’m not really sure we have a choice,” she answered quietly.

____________________________

The door opened and three people entered. Now he was surrounded by grown ups. Adults, he’d figured out, were pretty much useless most of the time. They lied. They left you alone. They were only in it for themselves. He knew a lot about that, way more than any nine-year-old ought to. He kept his gaze on the floor. He’d learned enough by now to know that if he ignored them, there was a better chance that they’d leave him alone. He tensed as he felt one of them move closer to him. Suddenly a pair of wedge sandals appeared directly in front of his own feet. Her toenails were painted purple. He felt her crouch down before him.
“Hello, Roman,” came a soft voice. He kept his eyes down. She didn’t SOUND horrible, but he was aware that didn’t always count for much.
“Roman,” this was Cassie’s voice. Cassie was his new social worker. She’d promised him when she picked him up that she was going to find him a set of foster parents who wouldn’t give up on him this time. To Roman, it all seemed like the same circus, just different clowns. But he also was unlikely to be given a choice. He had to live SOMEWHERE. Cassie continued.
“These are the Girardi’s, Roman. Look at us, please.”
Roman sighed deeply and allowed his gaze to drift upwards, making sure to keep the defiant look on his face. If these people were going to toss him out like old garbage eventually, he wasn’t going to even pretend to be interested in them. That would make it all easier. But he wasn’t prepared for what he saw when he looked up.
The woman before him had long, thick hair the color of honey. A soft smile played on her lips, but she definitely wasn’t looking at him with a giant fake grin, or like a ridiculous lovesick puppy the way most of his other foster mothers had. It was her eyes, though, that threw him. They were clear and blue, and the expression in them was---odd. Roman considered himself an expert by now on reading expressions. Body language too. Most people said one thing but their eyes told him that they were lying. But Mrs. Girardi’s eyes were genuine. Soft. And vaguely...well...sad. Roman briefly wondered what had happened to her to give her eyes that quality of sadness. Then he scolded himself. He wasn’t supposed to care. He didn’t want to care. Except...if he didn’t care, why did he have a constricted feeling in his chest suddenly? And why did he have a ridiculous urge to leap into her arms? She couldn’t be trusted; they never could. Trusting an adult had never ever ended well. No, no matter how real this woman seemed, he couldn’t risk it. It wasn’t worth getting hurt again. Roman let his gaze drop back to his feet.
“Hey, Roman,” the man’s voice that time. Mr. Girardi’s voice was low and kind of gravelly. “How ya doing?”
Roman shrugged but didn’t look up. Undaunted, Mr. Girardi continued talking.
“My name’s Tony,” he said. What, Roman wasn’t expected to call him “Dad”? “You in to baseball?”
Roman shrugged again.
“My brother is the manager of the New York Yankees. I’m from Brooklyn originally myself. Lily’s a big Cubs fan though, and most of her family roots for the Rangers. Makes for some interesting holidays, that’s for sure.” It took Roman a second to gather that Lily was probably Mrs. Girardi. He had no idea what a Yankee was, but he had been to a Rangers game once, with one of the many foster families who had eventually decided he was more trouble than he was worth. He felt Cassie’s hand on his back. “Roman told me he’s a football guy,” she said.
“Yeah? Who’s your team?” Tony asked.
“49ers,” Roman muttered to his feet. He was startled when he heard Tony laugh and Lily let out a loud groan. Slightly intrigued, he looked up to really see Tony for the first time. He looked absolutely nothing like Roman had figured. He was tall and thin, with deep brown eyes and a dimple on his left cheek. His hair was pulled back into a dark ponytail, and, most surprising, his right ear was pierced.
“HA! This kid is after my own heart!” Tony seemed giddy.
“I’m doomed,” Lily groaned again.
“She’s a Packers fan,” Tony filled Roman in with a laugh. “How a Packers fan wound up in Houston is anyone’s guess.”
“Probably the same way a 9er’s fan came out of Brooklyn,” Lily teased back. Roman fought off a smile. He still didn’t like them, but the way they ribbed each other gently was a little reassuring.
“How do you feel about ice cream?” Lily asked him.
“S’okay…” he responded softly.
“Bet Roman’s a steak guy,” Tony cut in, kneeling down next to Lily in front of Roman. Lily playfully elbowed Tony in the gut, and he feigned a pained expression. This time Roman couldn’t help it. A small smile betrayed him. He quickly managed to get himself back under control but it was too late. They had seen it.
“So...what do you say, Roman? Think you can give us a try?” Lily’s voice sounded truly hopeful. “We’re imperfect but we’re a lot of fun, I promise.”
“Maybe she’s not perfect but I’m damn close,” Tony cut in. Roman’s eyes widened at his comfortable use of a curse word, expecting Lily to let him have it, but she just grinned.
“Pardon his French,” she looked at Tony fondly. “He learned that in Brooklyn but unfortunately he didn’t start to learn any manners ‘til he met me, so he’s a little behind.”
Even Cassie laughed at this, and although Roman managed to bite back another smile, inside he felt...strange. For the first time since he’d been picked up at school and brought to Social Services, the feeling of dread in his stomach and the huge lump in his throat felt...smaller. Although he hated it, the urge to throw himself into Lily’s arms was still there, and the idea of going home with these obviously crazy people was just a tiny bit, maybe just a little...exciting. But he surely wasn’t going to let them know that. Instead he stared them down for a minute, silently letting them know that there was still time for them to back out. Tony looked directly into his eyes.
“Listen, we know…” he began slowly. “We know you’ve been bounced a bunch. And Jesus, a tough kid like you, we know you can handle it but it’s still gotta be just a little bit hard. So it’s your call. No one’s going to make you take a chance on us, Roman. We hope you will, but you’re almost 10, practically a grown man, and if you’d like a few minutes or even a few days to think it over, that’s okay.”
Roman’s eyes widened; was this guy for real? Never did he ever recall being given the opportunity to CHOOSE something before. He didn’t really have to think about it but in the interest of not sounding too eager, he hardened his voice as much as he could.
“Gotta be better than a group home right?” Roman replied. “But if I don’t like it…”
“Oh, I get it,” Tony looked as serious as a heart attack. “If you don’t like it you’re outta there. Works for me. Does it work for you Lu?”
“Works for me,” Lily said. “But only if you’re sure, Roman. Tony’s right; this is a huge decision.”
“Well, I’ve decided, haven’t I?” Roman knew he sounded a little rude, but better to let them know he wasn’t playing, though he expected they both knew he was bluffing anyway. “I’ll go with you.”
Lily’s face brightened. No one ever...DANG IT, why did they have to seem so genuine? Roman was beginning to hate himself, but the Girardi’s seemed to be casting a spell over him. That was it; it had to be magic. Or witchcraft. Because Roman Reigns was NOT going to fall for it of his own volition. He was not going to allowed himself to get hurt again. But then, a few nights in a real house with real food and a real bed couldn’t harm anything. Right?

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Tony Girardi smiled to himself as he drove his wife and new foster son to his house. Lily had been telling Roman all about it.
“We have your bedroom ready,” she’d told him. “Just furniture for now, but you’ll be able to decorate any way you want it. There’s a sports store at the mall. Bet Tony could find you some cool 49ers stuff. You okay with dogs?”
“Yeah,” came the sullen reply. Roman was doing his best to appear neutral and Tony knew he was fighting with himself. He had a damn good poker face for a 9-year-old but his eyes told the truth---the kid was absolutely petrified. Not without good reason, Tony reckoned. The boy had been in 17 foster homes in 7 years, ever since he was a toddler. Tony knew a great deal about Roman, actually. He knew the kid would have trouble sleeping at first. He knew he was allergic to pollen. He knew he struggled in school, not because he wasn’t smart but because he lacked confidence. He knew Roman’s mother was completely useless, and he also knew that Roman would defend her anyway as often as given the chance, AND he knew that Roman would become a beast for a day or two after scheduled visitation. He knew Roman loved root beer, pizza, strawberry Twizzlers, and strangely, sushi. He knew that he would keep up the charade of not caring, of not wanting to be there, as long as he needed to in order to keep himself up to his perception of safety, and Tony Girardi also knew, was resolutely certain, that Roman wanted desperately to be accepted by his new foster parents.
He and Lily were the right place for Roman. And Tony knew eventually Roman would learn that. It would be a slow process, it would take time, and Roman would likely fight it at first, but one thing he and Lily were not was a couple of quitters. They were equipped. They knew what to do. Roman had no idea what he was in for.
Tony’s thoughts dissipated and he snapped back to reality when he heard Lily telling Roman about the house, about the four dogs, six cats, eight horses, the land, the pool. He considered telling her not to overwhelm the kid, but he didn’t. She was about as anxious for things to work as Roman was.
In truth, Tony was still a little surprised that Lily had even agreed to this. It’d been a long time since they’d had a foster child, and Roman was going to be a bit of a challenge. That was okay with them though. A challenge was what they wanted. It was a welcome distraction from the way things had ended up last time…
Tony snapped himself out of it again as their sprawling ranch-style house came into view. He watched the rearview mirror as Roman’s eyes widened and he sat up straight.
“This is where you LIVE?” He seemed stunned. Tony grinned.
“Yup. Here we are. Home sweet home.” He parked the car and got Roman’s bags from the trunk while Roman and Lily got out. As soon as the garage door opened, the sound of delighted barking began to fill the air. Roman looked around cautiously. Lily patted his arm.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “They won’t hurt you. They’re just crazy excited that we’re home. We’ll leave them in their room until they calm down a little so they can greet you properly.”
Roman nodded but said nothing. Tony wondered if he was trying to set some sort of record for how little he could speak. He caught Roman’s eye.
“C’mon. Let’s go in and we’ll show you around.”
The first thing that greeted them when they walked into the laundry room from the garage was a massive black and white tuxedo cat lounging on the dryer. The cat, clearly unconcerned with the newcomer, regarded them placidly.
“Kitty number 1: Fats Domino,” Lily explained to Roman. “He’s kinda the house lounge lizard. Lazy as the day is long, but nothing bugs this one. Want to pet him?”
Roman reached his hand out and touched the cat. A good sign, Tony thought. The room buzzed as Fats began to purr under Roman’s touch. They continued into the kitchen. Roman’s eyes grew wide as he looked around. Another cat, an orange one, was curled up on the dining table. Tony watched as Lily guided Roman in that direction.
“Thomas O’Malley, get off the table,” she chided. Roman patted Thomas. His features were already beginning to soften slightly.
“There are four more right?” He asked.
“Yup. A couple that you’ll see and a couple more that may not come out for a week. Just depends on the mood.”
“Why so many?”
“Why so many what? Pets?” Lily clarified.
“Yeah.”
“Well…” she considered the question. “Every one of our animals, even the horses, were rescued from some sort of situation or other. I guess we’ve always just kind of figured that everyone deserves a chance, no matter how many legs you have. However,” Lily scooped the cat up and set him down on the floor, “there are still no kitties allowed on the table.”
Tony winked at Roman.
“He’ll be back up there the second we leave the room.”
The tour continued through the large living area, a smaller living area, and past a den with a desk and a computer. When they entered it, Lily gestured around.
“My office,” she said.
Roman slowly turned in a circle. Then he walked to the wall to look at Lily’s diplomas and certificates hanging in frames. They all read “Dr. Lily Girardi.”
“You’re a doctor?” Roman asked.
“Yup,” said Lily.
“A skilled orthopedic surgeon,” Tony added.
“What’s that?”
“It means she fixes bones and joints and stuff. A lot of athletic injuries, things like that.” Roman nodded again, then nearly jumped out of his skin when something brushed against his legs. He looked down, startled, at the brown and white tabby cat now circling his ankles. Then he looked up at Tony quizzically.
“Dr. Who,” Tony supplied.
“Who?”
“Not who. Dr. Who.”
“But…”
Lily laughed gently.
“It’s a TV show,” she explained. “We’ll watch sometime. Tony and I are kind of nerds and we like stuff like that.”
They left Lily’s office. Tony could feel his excitement mounting; he was ready to show Roman his bedroom. They paused at the master bedroom first.
“This is our room,” Lily said. “Of course if you ever need us at night, this is where you’ll find us.”
They continued down the long hall to the end, where a door stood open.
“And this is your room,” said Tony.
Roman stepped in and his mouth fell open. The bedroom was a fairly good size, but Tony knew that to Roman, it must feel palacial. There was a full-size bed and a dresser, and a desk against the wall. The large window looked out over the back of the house. Roman suddenly looked completely overwhelmed and didn’t seem to know what to say or do. Tony set his bags down on the bed and patted his shoulder softly.
“It’s okay, bud,” he said to the boy. “We know it’s a lot. Would you like some time alone for a second? The house and everything else will still be here later.”
Roman swallowed and nodded his head slowly.
“Okay. That’s okay. Lu, let’s go start dinner, huh?”
She nodded.
“You’ve had a long day, Roman. You check it out and relax a bit if you want. The bathroom is down the hall on your right. We’ll be in the kitchen if you need us.”
Tony took Lily’s hand as they walked down the hall back towards the kitchen.
“So...what do you think?” Lily asked when Roman was out of earshot.
Tony considered her question.
“He’s scared,” he replied and she nodded.
“Well, we knew he would be,” she replied slowly. “I’m kind of encouraged though…”
“Yeah, me too,” said Tony. “How are YOU doing?”
“I’m good. I just keep having to remind myself not to pressure him, just because I really really want this to work out.”
Tony reached over and squeezed her hand.
“I know. I do too. But you’re right. If we push him…”
“It’ll never work.” It never ceased to amaze Tony how uncanny Lily’s ability to finish his sentences had always been. He was still in love with her every bit as much as he had been when he met her over 15 years ago. In fact, even after 17 years, the sight of her still made his heart pound. And now that they’d met Roman...well, Tony knew better than to expect happily ever after this early in the game. But he also knew that in spite of the bitter taste their past experience left in their mouths, he and Lily were both rearranging their hearts, making room for Roman to stay.

Chapter Text

Roman laid down on the bed. Then he stood up. Then he laid down again. It was the most comfortable bed he’d ever been on. He felt tired, but he knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep. Not until he figured out these people and their game plan. What did they really want? Of course, the obvious answer was that they wanted HIM...but that should’ve been the obvious answer every single time. Yet here he was. He had long since lost track of how many families had kicked him out of their lives, and at this point it didn’t even matter anymore.
He heard a soft, strange sound at his feet. It almost sounded like a cross between a gag and a scratching noise. A gray cat, one he hadn’t seen yet, was sitting beside him on the floor, just looking at him. It had yellow eyes. But the sound he’d heard sure hadn’t been a meow. Had it?
Roman slowly patted the spot next to him on the bed, silently inviting the cat up with him. The cat regarded him solemnly for a few moments, then leaped up on the bed and curled up just out of Roman’s reach. When Roman scooted over, so did the cat.
“I know,” Roman whispered. “Sometimes I don’t like to be touched either.
The cat continued to stare at him. Roman laid down again. He closed his eyes, his thoughts drifting back to the talk he’d had with his previous set of foster parents two nights ago…
“Roman...this isn’t really working, is it?” She wouldn’t look him in the eyes. He didn’t react; after all, this had been what he’d wanted right?
“I mean…” He picked up where she left off. “You’re angry, you’re moody, you barely sleep, you fight at school...you clearly aren’t happy here. I don’t think we can give you what you need, Roman. There have got to be parents out there who can do better by you than we can. Right?”
Roman had just nodded, not even trying to pretend he was surprised or that he really cared. They had been nice enough, but he’d been there over two months now and they didn’t love him. No one ever did. He’d seen to that…
“So...so Cassie will pick you up from school on Thursday, and she’ll take you to your new foster family,” she had finished. Roman hadn’t ask what would happen if there WAS no foster family; he didn’t need to. That would mean a group home. He didn’t care about that, either. Sometimes those were better; no one even pretended to fuss over you there, and sometimes, the honesty was just better…
He started when he heard a tap at the door, and his eyes flew open. It was Lily.
“Dinner’s ready, Roman,” she said. She started to turn when her eyes caught the cat on Roman’s bed, who hadn’t moved. “Ahh...I see you met Froggy. I’m kind of surprised.”
She came into Roman’s room then, and he’d been about to question the cat’s name (Froggy?) when he heard the kind of mechanical sound from earlier and realized that it had, indeed, come from the cat, who had stood up at the sight of Lily and arched its back up in a stretch. The cat then brushed itself against Roman’s leg before jumping off the bed.
“Froggy? Because of the noise it makes?” Roman didn’t like asking questions, but he was genuinely curious.
Lily grinned, then her gaze turned serious.
“Yeah. See, Froggy was horribly mistreated by people. She was abused and then they tried to cut her vocal cords to prevent her from squealing when they hurt her. Her meow sounds like she has a frog in her throat, so that’s how she got her name---Froggy. That’s also why I’m surprised she came out already. She doesn’t trust most humans. It’s taken Tony and me years...usually she just hides when someone new is in the house. She must know you’re a friend. Come on.”
“I’m not really hungry,” Roman began.
“That’s okay, kiddo. You don’t have to eat. Tony and I just ask that you come to the table with us. We like to have dinner together. Sometimes our lives go in two different directions but when he’s not out of town, we always have dinner together.”
Roman didn’t argue; seriously, what had gotten in to him? He doubted Lily would’ve forced the issue if he’d put up a fight; it was his first night after all. But for some reason, he just let it go and followed her to the kitchen. When he got there, he noticed with a pang the three places set at the table. And the food smelled...good. The truth was he was starving; he had barely eaten all day. Tony’s face lit up into a smile when he and Lily entered the room.
“Hey Roman! Hope you like chicken,” he said.
They all sat down. Roman fully expected not to be offered anything---he HAD just stated he wasn’t hungry, after all, and he was surprised when Lily put a small piece of chicken on his plate anyway.
“Roman’s not feeling too hungry,” she told Tony. “But I’ve told him we’d like him to join us at the table anyway.” She turned her gaze to Roman.
“Like I said, you don’t have to eat this. I know you’ve had a really long day and if you don’t feel like eating we totally understand. But it’s here just in case you want to try a little.”
“Well...maybe…” Roman whispered. He picked up his knife and fork and cut off a tiny piece of chicken. It tasted amazing. He was so busy savoring it that he didn’t notice Lily and Tony exchange a knowing glance over his head. Once he started eating, he couldn’t stop. He froze when he realized he’d eaten the whole piece, he still felt hungry, and now he was going to have to ask them for more. But instead of making him, Tony just passed him a bowl of rice. Roman, grateful, scooped some onto his plate. Lily and Tony simply continued their conversation.
“So Roman’s met Froggy,” Lily said, passing Roman a bowl of green beans.
“Reallllllly,” Tony said slowly, letting out a low whistle and passing Roman the tray of chicken. “Froggy isn’t too in to people.”
“She was hanging out on his bed with him when I went to get him,” Lily said, and then she smiled at Roman. Stupid, genuine smile.
“Well, they say animals know who they can trust,” Tony answered.
“That’s true.”
They all ate in silence after that. Roman helped himself to a third piece of chicken. He didn’t even remember the last time his stomach had been full. No one said a word to him about it either; that was the thing. They could’ve commented. Roman knew that. But instead they simply let him eat. He sighed deeply, feeling relieved and suddenly a tiny bit more relaxed. The feeling washed over him again; the feeling that maybe, just maybe, this could work. Maybe. After all, if they could spend years gaining the trust of a cat...he shook his head. He would NEVER let himself trust them. Not ever. But if...if they didn’t make him miserable...then maybe he could stay.

Lily knew that Roman was hungry, and she also knew that it would be awhile before he would be able to bring himself to ask for anything. That was okay. This wasn’t her first rodeo, after all; she doubted that Roman was aware, but he was far from their first foster child. So rather than bring attention to the fact that he had lied, she wordlessly kept passing him food, and he kept on eating.
The rest of the evening passed quickly. Tony requested that Roman take his dishes to the sink. Roman hesitated, but complied, an excellent sign, Lily thought. They let the dogs out of their room and introduced each of them to Roman in turn. The pups leaped around him, offering wags and licks, and for the first time, they witnessed Roman softly laugh. It was dark by then, but they put him to bed with promises that the next day, they would go outside and show him the rest of the property.
Lily and Tony dressed in their pajamas and crawled into bed.
“I know he’s not asleep,” she murmured.
“Probably not,” Tony yawned. “Are YOU going to sleep?”
Lily smiled a little.
“Probably not.”
“We’ll go check on him in a little while. Give him a chance to settle though. I know he’s tired. And if he can’t sleep, as long as he’s not distressed---he’ll be okay. We’ll get there, Lu. You’re so great with him.”
“So are you,” Lily replied. “I really feel like we did the right thing, baby. I feel like he belongs here.”
“So do I,” Tony yawned again. “We’ll make it work. We just have to remember the rules. He’s going to do his best to get us to give up on him. I can’t wait to see his face the moment he realizes it ain’t gonna happen.”
Lily laughed.
“That boy,” she smiled fondly, thinking of the 9-year-old down the hall. “That sweet boy has NO IDEA who he’s dealing with.”

True to form, Lily tossed and turned long after she could hear Tony’s soft snores beside her. After awhile, she got up and crept silently down the hall. She peaked into Roman’s darkened room, noticing that Froggy had found her spot on his bed, and two of the four dogs were stretched out with him as well. Then she realized that Roman was trembling. Lily’s heart began to ache for him. Not sure if her presence would be welcome, she softly tapped on his door frame anyway.
When Roman heard her knock, he jumped, then began shaking even harder. Lily slipped into his room, scooted Honey Badger over a little, and perched herself on the edge of his bed.
“You okay?” She whispered. He wouldn’t look at her, just nodded his head softly.
“Need anything?” Lily tried again, but Roman’s eyes remain downcast as he simply shook his head. Lily sighed. Talking wouldn’t do her any good; she knew they just weren’t there yet. So instead, she pulled the blankets up around Roman, tucking him in gently. Honey Badger crawled back up to reclaim her spot at Roman’s side and he reached his hand out from under the covers to stroke the dog’s back.
“I’m sorry, kiddo. I know this sucks.” Roman still wouldn’t look at her, so she just patted his shoulder before standing.
“You know where to find me if you need me. Try to get some rest,” she murmured.
Lily turned and walked out of Roman’s room, but she didn’t go far. Instead of going back to bed, she leaned against the wall outside Roman’s door and slid down to the floor. He needed her. She knew that. He just wasn’t ready to accept her. She knew that too. But that didn’t mean she couldn’t stay nearby just in case. So there she sat. She heard the boy shift in bed. She heard a soft moan. And then she heard Roman begin to cry. Lily sighed. She longed to go into his room, to hold him, to talk to him, to try and force him to let her in---but she knew better. So instead, she stayed put outside his door. If anything went wrong, she would go to him but for now, she knew the best thing she could do was just respect Roman’s space and let him have some time alone to try and sort all of his feelings out.

Roman had no idea when he’d finally cried himself to sleep, but when he woke up, sunlight was streaming through the bedroom windows. The clock on the night table read 10:47. But...today was Friday. He was supposed to be in school...wasn’t he? He sat up slowly. Froggy was gone, and another cat---Dr. Who maybe?---was curled up by his pillow. The two dogs from last night were gone as well, but as he got to his feet, he realized that a third one, a scruffy black and gray thing, was laying in the doorway. Its tail began furiously wagging and it’s ears popped up the second it saw him moving. Roman liked animals; animals were a lot more trustworthy than people. Last night as he’d cried and cried, Honey Badger had nuzzled closer and closer to him until his arm had draped around her back and his tears had begun to fall on her fur. Then she licked his face. The other dog had cozied up to his back, and the cat had nuzzled his feet. The animals made him feel safe.
He really had to pee, though, so he stopped to pet the scruffy dog, then rushed to the bathroom. Roman still didn’t understand what he was doing there, or why he had been allowed to sleep so late. And Lily and Tony both had jobs; surely they hadn’t just left Roman alone...had they? No, of course not; they’d get in big trouble for that. He knew it was stupid but he started to panic a little. He didn’t want them around, but he still didn’t want to be all alone in this big, strange house, even if it WAS full of dogs and cats. He stumbled down the hall and into the living room, where he heaved a huge sigh of relief. Lily was sitting on the couch.
She was flanked by two dogs and a cat Roman was sure he hadn’t met yet was curled on her lap. He couldn’t help but stare at her. Yesterday, she’d looked so put together in heels, dress slacks, with her hair and makeup perfect. Today, though, she looked...well, kind of like a slob. She wore yoga pants and a faded Packers tshirt, her hair up in a sloppy bun. And she was wearing glasses, and she was tapping away on a laptop. The cat on her lap took one look at Roman and bailed. Without looking up, Lily addressed him.
“Good morning, kiddo. Don’t mind Monkey. He’s skittish with new people, especially guys. He’ll come back once he realizes you aren’t so big and scary.” Lily patted the couch, offering Roman a spot to sit, but no way was he going to get that close to her. Instead he opted for the overstuffed chair to the right.
“Where’s Honey Badger?” He asked.
“Probably outside. She likes to stalk birds in the morning. Though it’s kind of approaching lunch time now.” Lily glanced up from the computer and smiled at Roman, before turning back to what she’d been doing.
Roman had to admit that Lily’s smile was no less genuine this morning than it had been the previous day. She looked tired, but she obviously hadn’t tired of him yet. Another cat, the first one he’d met, Fats Domino, waddled over and jumped up into the chair with a thud. Lily looked up again.
“We gotta get you on some low-calorie kibble or something, Fats, ‘fore you start breaking the furniture.”
Roman petted the cat and leaned back in the chair. The silence between them was thick but not necessarily uncomfortable. He just didn’t know what he was supposed to say, or if Lily even expected him to say anything. He did have a question though.
“Why didn’t I have to go to school today?” That got Lily’s attention. She closed the laptop and looked up at him.
“We’ve talked to your new principal, and your new fourth grade teacher, and we all agreed that you didn’t have to start right away. Tony and I think it’s pretty important that you have some time to adjust to home first before we throw you into something else that’s new.”
“Don’t you have to work?” Roman asked.
“The beautiful thing about my job,” Lily began, “is that most of the time, orthopedic operations aren’t emergencies. So I’m taking a few days off. Tony had to go in today, but he’ll be home tonight and he’ll be here this weekend. As for school, we’ll go in sometime next week and check it out together and show you around, and meet your teacher. But missing a few days won’t hurt you.” She smiled at Roman again. “Anything special you’d like to do today?”
Roman just shrugged. He couldn’t believe this whole thing. They weren’t making him go straight to school? And then after having him play hookie, here she was asking him what he’d like to do instead. What kind of a mother behaved this way?
“Well, we need to get groceries for sure, so we can make dinner tonight, plus I wasn’t sure what kind of stuff you like to have around for snacks. Then I figured if we were going to Target anyway, maybe we could see about getting you some new clothes.”
Roman immediately felt defensive.
“Why? What’s wrong with my clothes?”
Lily looked amused.
“Absolutely nothing, kiddo, but you’re talking to a girl who absolutely despises doing laundry, and there are three people living in this house. It takes awhile to make full loads and you don’t want to run out of stuff before I get around to washing it. Tony figured that out early on. Used to drive him crazy, but eventually he learned it was easier to just buy extra underwear. I can cook a fair game, Roman, but other than that I’m just not a very domestic person. Never have been. You hungry?”
Roman considered denying it, but after last night he knew she wouldn’t believe him anyway, so instead he just nodded. A moment later he was glad he had, when his stomach let out a massive rumble.
“Well, go get dressed then,” Lily said. “We can go meet Tony for lunch before we shop.”
Roman got up and walked back to his room, the black and gray scruffy dog at his heels.
“What IS your name?” He muttered. There were so many of them and his brain was on overload, so much information getting jumbled together. The dog hopped up on the bed and attempted to lick his face. So he took hold of her collar gently and found her ID tag. Stella. That was right. The grey scruffy one with the black ears was Stella. Honey Badger was black with brown markings and pointy ears. The other one who slept with him last night, Gator, was brown, black, and white. And the fourth one, Wyatt Earp, was white with black spots. It wasn’t lost on Roman that none of the dogs were purebred, and he appreciated that.
Once dressed, Roman met Lily (who’d put on some jeans and brushed her hair) in the kitchen. They went out to the garage together. The black Escalade they’d ridden home in yesterday was gone, but Lily motioned towards the passenger side of a silver Highlander and Roman climbed into the back of it. He looked out the window to the right and noticed that the three-car garage also housed a huge blue pickup truck.
“Why do you need three cars?”
“Well, he’s got one and I’ve got one for everyday use. The pickup is mainly for hauling horses. And dogs. And for reference, Roman, when it’s just me and you, I don’t mind if you ride shotgun.” Lily smiled that smile at him again.
Neither of them really spoke as they rode into town. Roman stared out the window at the city before him. He let his mind wander, not really thinking about anything in particular, but he jumped back to attention when he felt the Highlander stop.
In front of the Hard Rock Cafe.
What?
Not used to this at all, he just sat in the car, until Lily came around to his side and opened his door.
“Roman? Are you okay? Do you not like it here? We can go somewhere else for lunch, kiddo, you just have to tell me---”
Roman managed to shake his head.
“No, I’ve just...never been here before,” he whispered. A familiar look dawned on Lily’s face.
“Oh, Roman. I’m sorry. I should’ve asked. Not used to eating out huh?”
He shook his head again. He wasn’t used to it. Not at all. Most of his foster families had never bothered to take him anywhere, especially not the Hard Rock Cafe at lunch time. Lily leaned over until she was at his eye level.
“Hey. Look at me, please.” Her voice was soft, not menacing or angry at all. Roman lifted his eyes to stare into hers, trying to hide the uncertainty he knew was written all over his face.
“We can eat someplace else. It’s okay. It’s your call, kiddo.”
Roman just unbuckled his seatbelt.
“No, it’s okay. This is fine.”
“Okay, then. Let’s go. Tony’s waiting.”

Tony was sitting at a table nursing an iced tea, but he jumped to his feet and grinned when he saw his wife and foster son approaching.
“Hey there,” he kissed Lily deeply before turning to Roman. “Hey there, buddy. Doing okay today?”
Lily smiled at him. Roman looked nervous and lost. Tony looked at Lily questioningly.
“This is Roman’s first time to eat here,” Lily supplied and it dawned on Tony that the kid probably wasn’t used to this kind of thing at all. Indeed, he looked as though he had absolutely no idea what he was supposed to do. Tony began to wonder if he’d ever been to a restaurant that didn’t have a drive thru.
“Well, here, have a seat,” Tony indicated to a chair, and Roman sank down into it. “I already ordered an appetizer. Hope you like nachos, Roman.”
Lily and Roman looked at menus.
“What would you like to drink?” Lily showed him the selections, and Roman settled on Pepsi. The nachos arrived, and Tony stared over them at the two people sitting across from him. Lily was gently showing Roman how to read the menu. Tony couldn’t help but notice that while Roman was clearly still quite guarded, he also seemed a bit more comfortable than he had the day before. He settled on a bacon cheeseburger with fries. Lily ordered sushi, and Tony opted for a steak. He grinned as he watched Roman dig into the nachos. It was satisfying to see that the kid had an appetite.
“We’re going shopping after lunch,” Lily said to Tony. “Need anything?”
“We’re about out of dish soap. And uh, get Roman some extra clothes.” Tony replied. Lily laughed.
“Yeah, yeah, I’ve already told him about our deep-rooted laundry aversion,” she continued to giggle. “Anything else?”
“Can’t think of anything. What’s for dinner?” Tony asked, before stuffing a chip into his mouth.
“Good question. Any thoughts, Roman?”
It killed Tony how Roman looked surprised any time one of them asked him a question, as if he honestly couldn’t believe they really cared about his opinion.
“Well...not hamburgers…” he whispered slowly. That was the other thing. They were gonna HAVE to teach this kid to speak in a voice louder than a whisper. It was endearing though. Tony glanced over at Lily.
“Okay, so no burgers. Guess we can also rule out steak and fish. And we just had chicken last night. What’s that leave?”
“Hmm...oh, I know! How do you feel about breakfast foods, Roman? We could make waffles, bacon, and omelets. Breakfast for dinner.”
“Sounds great to me,” Tony said as their lunch arrived. Roman simply nodded. They ate their meal in companionable silence. Tony noticed Roman practically inhaled his food, after eating half a plate of nachos. Then he began eyeballing Lily’s sushi. He knew this child hadn’t been fed properly. He was far from malnourished or anything like that, but he was still too skinny for his long frame. Tony was hoping that tomorrow Roman would feel up to spending some time outdoors with him. He wanted to take him to explore the property, and he wanted to see if Roman liked to play ball. He noticed Lily offer Roman a piece of sushi, and he took it gratefully and closed his eyes as he savored it.
“What time do you have to be back?” Lily asked him. He glanced at his phone.
“Oh...20 minutes or so,” he replied. Roman looked up at him.
“Where do YOU work?” He asked.
“Well...I work for the FBI…” Tony began slowly, not sure how Roman would take that information. His eyes grew wide.
“So you like...shoot people and stuff?”
“No...well. Yes, I HAVE had to shoot people before.” Tony looked into Roman’s eyes. “It’s not something I’m proud of and it’s not something I would ever choose to do again, but it’s something that every once in awhile has to happen for the safety of a lot of other people. These days I mainly consult though. I do still go a lot of places but not nearly as often as I used to. And I’ve been offered jobs teaching at Quantico more than once but I can’t bear to make Lily leave Houston. It was bad enough asking her to leave San Antonio.”
“San Antonio?”
“That’s where I’m from,” Lily explained. “It’s where I grew up and where most of my family is.”
“Oh. So...are there guns in the house?” Roman wanted to know.
“Yes. Does that bother you?”
“No, I just...I’ve never...really seen one,” he whispered.
Tony grinned.
“You’re gonna be exposed to all kinds of new things here, buddy. And when you turn 10 I’m going to teach you how to shoot, because if you’re going to live in a house with guns, it’s important that you learn how to treat them and use them with proper respect. Too many people don’t teach that stuff to their kids and that’s how accidents happen...anyway. I’d better head back. But you two have a good rest of the day. I’ll be home in time for dinner...er, breakfast.”

Chapter Text

And so it went. Each day, Roman found himself growing slightly more comfortable with his new surroundings. Each night, sleep came to him just a little bit easier. There was always at least one animal in his bed, usually three or four. There was always something to do. The property the Girardi’s lived on was enormous. It spanned 50 acres, most of which was simply groves and trees with trails, perfect for a young boy to explore. There was a pond (more like a lake) that backed up to the property. Roman knew he was not to go in to the water alone, but there was no rule about walking along the edge and looking out into it (Honey Badger almost always by his side). After they’d gone shopping at Target on that first day, Lily had taken him to a used book store and bought him every title he’d expressed an interest in. Tony had taught him how to work the Blu Ray player and the AppleTV. Every night when Tony came home, he and Roman would galavant outdoors for as long as they could before being called to dinner. He’d even made friends with the horses, after that first night when he’d gotten closer than he wanted to and stumbled back in fright when one of the massive beasts had leaned over him and snorted into his chest. If Tony hadn’t been standing directly behind him, he would’ve fallen down for sure. At first he was annoyed by Lily’s gentle chuckles. Then she showed him how to hold his hand flat, palm up, with a carrot or an apple or a lump of sugar on it, and the horse gently lipped it right up. It hadn’t hurt at all. Roman had never ever been that close to a real horse before, but Lily had promised that once he got used to them, she would teach him how to ride.
That was another thing. Everything was always about letting him adjust. Neither of them ever pressured him into anything he wasn’t ready for. It wasn’t that they didn’t have expectations of him, not at all. He was expected to clear his plate from the table after each meal, to put his clothes in the hamper in his closet, and keep up after himself. The Girardi’s seemed to be relinquishing responsibility to him slowly, though. And it was never ever “just go do it.” It was always, “hey, Roman, will you help me with…” and then the next night, “we need to do this. Remember how?” Until before long he was doing things like feeding the dogs and helping set the table before anyone even asked. It was a strange feeling. There was no pressure, none at all, and yet he had no desire to disobey or stop pitching in. It just seemed...natural.
And the Girardi’s themselves were just...cool. In the days since he had come home with them, they hadn’t lost their genuine quality. In fact, it was just the opposite. Lily and Tony seemed to look at him with more fondness than ever, and while he still swore he was never going to trust them, they were tolerable. They were even fun. They danced with each other in the kitchen while cooking, ridiculous dancing, not the slow kind that married couples were supposed to do. They kissed right in front of him. They let him try things that no adult had ever let him try (over the first weekend Tony had taught him how to drive a golf cart, assuring Roman that it really wasn’t that different from driving a car). He knew that Lily wanted to hug him and kiss on him, but she held off on lavishing him with affection. She seemed to know that he wasn’t ready for that just yet. However, she read to him, and sometimes she asked him to read to her. They spent their days together, sometimes just talking, sometimes just sitting quietly. Twice more, they met Tony for lunch. Roman loved it, but he wasn’t going to admit it to them. Not yet.
Everything was going really well. Roman had never expected that but it was. So on the sixth day, when he’d woken up with a headache already, then Lily informed him that he needed to get dressed because they were going to visit his new school, he himself was surprised at his own reaction.
Anger. Fear. Surging up through his belly and threatening to explode. He managed to just put his mask back on, the one that clearly said, “don’t mess with me.” But Lily, no longer accustomed to seeing him that way, had sat down on his bed and tried to talk to him about it. And Roman felt the wall starting to rebuild. He hated himself for it. He tried, he really tried, but the truth was, he was terrified. Of school, of new people who might judge him and taunt him and maybe even hurt him, of being away from Lily, who had managed to protect him so far but even she could only do so much when she was nowhere nearby.
Roman knew the best thing to do was just tell her how he felt. Suddenly, though, words choked him. So instead he did the only other thing he knew to do. He lashed out.
“I don’t want to.”
“It’s not a choice, kiddo.”
Roman’s head was pounding. He knew he needed to just talk to her. He knew that. But…
“No. I don’t want to go. And...and you can’t make me.” There was silence after that. Lily’s blue eyes flashed, and Roman was sure she was going to finally do..something. Yell at him, discipline him, anything that he had grown used to in his short 9 years. He wasn’t prepared for her to quietly sit beside him on his bed. He wasn’t prepared for the sadness in her voice. He wanted her to get angry, because he was angry, and if he had to feel angry then so did she. He got no such thing. Her voice was simply soft.
“Look at me, Roman. Please.”
He did, because even though he was mad, furious even, she still held that spell over him. He felt stupid tears sting his stupid eyes.
“I know. I know.” He sensed Lily was fighting not to pull him into her arms. “I know you’re scared, kiddo. I know.” They continued to stare at each other. He wanted to tell her he wasn’t afraid, but she would know he was lying; she always seemed to.
“I know it’s not easy to trust me, Roman. I know, and I understand. But I need you to try. I need you to try to do that harder than you’ve ever tried to do anything before. Because I wouldn’t send you if I did not know you were ready. It’s scary. It is. But you can do this, Roman. I believe that. I believe in you. You have to try and trust me. I know it’s hard, kiddo. I’m on your side. But you have to try.”
He would not cry. He would NOT. He would ignore the throbbing in his head and the tears in his eyes. Roman didn’t say another word to Lily. He just stood up, brushed past her, grabbed some clothes from his closet, and headed to the bathroom.
Trust her. Trust HER. It’d been so long...so long since he had trusted anyone. He wanted to. He honestly wanted to. He just didn’t know...he didn’t know if he even remembered how.

Lily took a deep breath. She absolutely despised herself for putting this child she already loved through this, but he had to go to school eventually. She knew it would be hard. She knew he was scared, and she knew she had to respect that. It would have been easy to snap back at Roman but she wouldn’t; instead she tried to put herself in his place. And when the boy finally joined her in the kitchen, she simply smiled at him.
Neither of them spoke on the way. Roman’s new school was about a 30 minute drive from their house. Sure, there were schools that were closer, but Creek Ridge Academy was the school that Lily and Tony always chose for their fosters. It was private and small. The class size never exceeded 15 students. This was appealing for a number of reasons, most notably that the teachers were able to spend plenty of time working with the children in small groups, something that they knew Roman would thrive on. Although there was a dress code, students weren’t expected to wear uniforms. And the school integrated plenty of art and music into the curriculum, something that one might not expect to be important to a doctor and an FBI agent, but something that Lily and Tony both found extremely appealing.
Lily knew that Roman would love it if he’d just give it half a chance. Once he saw it and tried it and learned more about it, he’d adjust. She and Tony were actually pleasantly surprised at how quickly Roman seemed to be adjusting to home life. It was going to suck being away from him when she had to go back to work, but he would be fine. And she and Tony were going to be there for him until he was.
Still, his apprehension was bothering her. Had something happened to him at a previous school, or was this all part of his trust problem?
She parked the Highlander in the parking lot and looked over at Roman. He was looking out the window, taking in the building.
“A private school? Why do I have to go to a private school?” Lily calmly explained her and Tony’s rationale.
“But doesn’t this cost money?”
“Well, sure. But your education is very important, Roman, and we know you’ll get a good one here.”
“Wasn’t I before?”
“Kiddo, do me favor, okay?” Lily was trying hard not to be impatient with Roman. “I want you not to worry about that. It’s our job to worry about how much things cost. It’s your job to just have fun being a kid. When you’re a grown up and you have a kid to make decisions for, if you don’t want to send them to private school, that’s up to you. For now, this is where you’re going. And everything is going to be okay. It’s going to be great. Come on. Let’s just get out and look around.”
Roman sighed.
“Okay. Fine.”
They walked side by side to the door of the building. Lily steered Roman to a counter in the office, where they were greeted by a secretary. Lily grinned at her.
“Hey, there, Katie.”
“Dr. G! My goodness, it’s so good to see you again; it’s been awhile. Is this Roman?”
Lily nodded.
“Yup. This is Roman. Roman Reigns.” She patted his shoulder. “I think Mrs. Cruz is expecting us.”
“She sure is. My name is Miss Katie, Roman. I’m one of the secretaries. This is Miss Cindy,” Katie indicated to the woman sitting at a desk behind the counter, who smiled warmly at them. “I’m going to let Mrs. Cruz know you’ve arrived. Roman, we’re so glad you’re here. Welcome!”
Lily began to lead Roman to the chairs at the side so they could wait for Mrs. Cruz, but within 30 seconds, a door at the end of the office opened and a short woman with a huge smile came bursting out of it.
“Lily! I thought I heard you!”
“Hello, Jennifer,” Lily grinned. “How’ve you been?”
“Good, good, but man, have we missed you. This must be Roman. My goodness, he’s taller than I am!” Beside her, Lily could feel Roman’s shoulders relax just a tiny bit.
“Yes ma’am. This is Roman. Roman, this is Mrs. Cruz. She’s the principal at Creek Ridge.”
“Hello,” Roman whispered.
Mrs. Cruz took his hand and shook it.
“Hello there. I’m glad to meet you. The second Lily called me, I was so excited. I’m so happy you’re here. Welcome to Creek Ridge Academy, home of the Creek Ridge Colts. This is the elementary building, of course. There’s a middle school and a high school down the street. Not that you’ll be needing those just yet. Come in, come in.”
Mrs. Cruz ushered Lily and Roman into her office, where they all sat down. Lily could see Roman’s eyes widen as he looked around.

Her office was massive. Roman looked at Lily quickly before looking around again. Mrs. Cruz had a big desk and several chairs, plus a decent sized table with more chairs, plus a stuffed La-Z-Boy looking thing in a corner. Her shelves were full of books. Not just books about principal type stuff, either, but kid books. There was a giant fish tank set up in the corner near the window, and dozens of fish happily swam around. Roman swallowed. He had a million questions---but he stayed silent.
Roman just waited while Lily signed paperwork. Mrs. Cruz seemed okay, but he was not about to just roll over either. He felt his headache coming back.
They took him on a tour of the building, and as much as Roman hated to admit it, it just kept getting better and better. The gym was state of the art, the music room was incredible. There were science labs and a grand cafeteria, which, according to Mrs. Cruz, served food that was even edible. Mrs. Cruz herself was hilarious, keeping Lily in stitches and making Roman have to fight really hard not to smile. Until they turned down a hall that had “Fourth Grade” painted on a wall over a corridor.
Mrs. Cruz knocked on the second door on the left, then opened the door.
“Mrs. Vaverka?”
Roman froze as they stepped into the classroom.
“Mrs. Vaverka, this is Roman. He’s going to be joining your class on Monday.”
Everyone in the room looked at him. He busied himself looking around. It was a large classroom, especially since Roman counted just nine students. This classroom was unlike anything he’d ever seen before. The teacher clearly loved science. There were posters and diagrams covering the walls. Four bookshelves housed literally hundreds of books. He counted no less than 8 terrariums and small cages, though he couldn’t easily see what lived inside them. This meant animals. There were animals. In his classroom. At school. This could work.
The rest of the tour was a blur. After Mrs. Vaverka greeted him and briefly introduced him to each member of the class, Mrs. Cruz whisked him and Lily through the rest of the school. They ended up back in the office. Before long, he and Lily were back outside heading to the Highlander. The sky was dark and it matched Roman’s mood. It began to rain almost as soon as they got into the car.
“So what’d you think?”
Roman shrugged. He’d thought it was the most amazing school he’d ever seen, but he sure wasn’t about to tell Lily this.
“It’s going to be okay, Roman. I think once you get into it and start making friends, you’re really going to like it here. Want some lunch?”
Roman shook his head. This time he was legit not hungry. His head was spinning. He just wanted to go lie down. Lily sighed.
“Okay. Let’s go home.”
Once home, Roman went immediately to his room and laid down on his bed. Lily let him be. He was soon joined by Stella and Honey Badger. He was so tired, and his head still hurt. He considered asking Lily for some Tylenol or something but he was mad at her. So what if the school had been incredible? She was still making him go, and he was mad at her anyway.
He fell asleep, and when he woke up, not only did his head hurt but the rest of his body was sore as well. Roman couldn’t figure out why he felt like this; maybe he and Tony had overdone it when they’d played football the night before. He could hear the sound of distant thunder. It must still be raining; that explained why his room was so dark. He got up and stretched and went to the bathroom, and then went out to the kitchen. Tony was home. He could hear him talking to Lily in the kitchen.
“...just seems really nervous about it. He hasn’t eaten all day.” Lily was apparently filling Tony in on the school visit.
“As in, hasn’t eaten much?” Tony asked Lily. Roman could hear them chopping vegetables. They were side by side, but their backs were to him, and they had no idea he was watching.
“No, as in hasn’t eaten at all. He skipped breakfast, he said he didn’t want lunch, and he’s been asleep in his room since we got home. Five hours ago.” Lily turned slightly. Roman could see her dump tomatoes into a huge salad bowl. The thought of food made his stomach churn.
“Really sleeping or pretend sleeping?” Roman could feel himself growing angry. Who were they to talk about him behind his back like this?
“Tony. Please. I’ve been watching him since he got here; you don’t think by now I know when he’s just pretending to---” At that point Roman coughed and they both whirled around.
“Hey, buddy!” Tony exclaimed. He looked happy to see Roman, and he didn’t look the slightest bit guilty, which only served to make Roman angrier. “Looks like we won’t be hanging out outdoors tonight, huh?”
“Why were you talking about me?” Roman couldn’t hold back. He knew his voice sounded angry and rude, and he wasn’t even really that upset that they’d been discussing him, but something inside him just couldn’t stop.
“What?” Lily’s eyes were soft and she approached Roman slowly, as though he were a cornered animal that might bite her.
“You’ve been talking about me behind my back and I want to know why!” Roman practically shouted.
“Whoa.” Lily’s voice was serious now, though she still didn’t look even a tiny bit angry. “Listen. You’re allowed to be upset with us, Roman, but please don’t talk to us that way.”
Tony’s eyes had clouded slightly, but he too looked more concerned than mad.
“We just want to help you, bud. Why don’t we go sit down in the living room and talk---”
“NO!” Roman exploded. “I don’t want to talk to you!”
There was an odd calm to Tony’s voice.
“Roman.” He paused. “Lily’s right. It’s okay that you’re angry. We all get angry sometimes. We expect you to control your actions though---”
“I AM IN COMPLETE CONTROL!” Roman shrieked. He was furious now, the anger in his heart and the pounding in his head combining to make him see red behind his eyes. “YOU don’t need to worry about me. I can take care of myself! I’ve been doing it for a long time. I don’t need YOU. Just quit pretending you care about me and LEAVE ME ALONE!”
Lily looked like he’d just slapped her and his heart jumped. He’d done that; he’d made her look like that. She hadn’t been anything but kind to him and here he was screaming at her, but once he’d started all the anger kept pouring out of him. They were just suckering him. They had to be.
“Roman, listen. Please look at me.” He couldn’t meet her eyes this time. “If you don’t want to talk that’s fine. But screaming at us isn’t okay. You’re welcome to go hang out in your bedroom for a bit if you’d like to be alone…” That look was back. The one that told Roman that what Lily really wanted was to hug him tight and let him hurt. He half wished she would, because right then what he wanted more than anything was to lay his head down and close his eyes. Instead, he kept on screaming.
“No. You can’t make me. Know why? Because you’re not really my parents! You’re just two people pretending they want me around. I know you don’t because no one does. No one ever has and no one IS EVER GOING TO. And I’m NOT staying here!” With that, Roman bolted past Tony and took off out the back door, Honey Badger hot on his heels.

Chapter Text

He heard them calling for him but he didn’t turn back. He just ran into the woods, off the path, and through the trees. He had no idea where he was going or what he was going to do when he got there. And for all of the self loathing he did, he had never hated himself more than he hated himself right then. He’d been stupid. He’d been awful. If Lily and Tony had wanted him before, they weren’t going to want him anymore.

Roman ran until he couldn’t breathe. His entire body was screaming, and his throat felt like it was on fire from all the yelling. He leaned against a tree and looked down at Honey Badger. She was every bit as cold and soaked as he was, and that made him feel worse. Now he’d dragged her into his mess.

“Honey, go home!” He snapped at her. She just looked at him and cocked her head.

“I mean it! Go home, Honey Badger!” The dog still didn’t move. It occurred to Roman that maybe in their haste to leave, Honey Badger had lost track of where home was too. He had no idea where they were. Man, he’d really done it this time. He was freezing. He could feel himself begin to shake. Maybe he would die out here alone. He deserved that after the way he’d acted. Was it any wonder nobody loved him after he behaved this way? He wouldn’t blame the Girardi’s if they never wanted to see him again.

Roman sighed and sank down to the ground, trying to find a spot where the tree’s branches might shield him from the rain just a little. Honey Badger crawled over his lap and rested her head on his shoulder. He was tired. So tired. And so cold. His teeth chattered. Honey Badger licked his face. Roman’s throat was screaming now, the pounding in his head reaching a fever pitch, and his entire body just hurt. He stopped trying to hold his tears in. He cried until even that hurt too much, and then he leaned against Honey and closed his eyes. He’d try to sleep. The dog’s warmth was slightly comforting, even if she WAS soaking wet. He’d try to sleep, and then once the rain stopped, he’d try to find his way back to one of the trails. Even if the Girardi’s didn’t want him anymore, surely if he could at least make it back to the house, they’d find him someplace else to go. Maybe even let him sleep there tonight and get warm. He tightened his arms around Honey Badger and drifted off to sleep.

“Oh, buddy,” Roman heard Tony’s voice but it sounded far away. He felt himself floating, as strong arms lifted him off the ground. He let out a whimper, but couldn’t make himself speak. What was happening?

The rain stopped suddenly. No, that wasn’t right; he could still hear it but it was no longer hitting his face. He could feel something covering him up, shielding him.

“Just hang on, buddy. I’m here, Roman. I’ve got you,” Tony’s voice again, calm and soft but not any closer.

It was bumpy. Roman had no idea what was happening but they were moving. Honey Badger remained nearby; he couldn’t see her anymore but he smelled her damp fur and felt her head on his shoulder. Was he laying down?

“Lily! I’ve got him!” Tony’s voice was more urgent now, as he picked Roman up again and Roman felt himself get carried into the house.

“Is he okay?” Lily’s voice, filled with worry.

“I can’t tell. He was leaning against a tree. He doesn’t look like he’s been hurt but he hasn’t said a word.”

“Okay. Let’s get you out of those wet clothes, kiddo.”

Roman felt himself be laid on his bed, felt soft hands removing his wet clothes. He didn’t have the energy or interest to protest. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt so awful in his life. He was dizzy. He could hear snippets of their conversation around him.

“...shaking so hard…”
“...don’t like this at all…”
“...burning up. Grab the thermometer…”
“...oh, fuck, 105.6…”

That sounded bad. He knew it must’ve been when, a moment later, he felt himself lifted into Tony’s arms yet again as Lily’s soft hands wrapped a blanket around him. Something cold touched his forehead and he moaned; it felt good.

Roman drifted in and out as Tony broke every traffic law out there to get him to the hospital. He was laying in Lily’s arms on the back seat of the Escalade as she murmured words meant to soothe into his ear.

It’s okay.
I’m here, Roman.
I know it hurts. I’ve got you.
Don’t be afraid.
I’ve got you.

He felt the car stop, felt Tony lift him out of Lily’s arms and run with him into the building. He felt himself be laid on a gurney and rolled. Then he heard the thing he desperately didn’t want to hear.

“You guys can wait right here.”

“No!” He heard Lily’s cry of distaste. “No, I’m staying with my son.”

Her...son? After all of that, she considered him her son? He didn’t want to be separated from them. He wanted them to hold his hand. He didn’t want to be alone with these strangers. He wanted...he felt a sob rise up into his throat. Roman wanted to beg them not to take him away. He tried and tried, and finally, he managed to get one long, wailed word out of his mouth:

“Maaaaammmmmmmaaaaaaaaaaaa!”

------------

When Lily heard Roman’s sob of Mama, something inside her snapped. That baby needed her and no way were they going to keep her away.

“Foster child or not, right now I’m the only mother he has,” she said, pushing her way past a nurse. “And I’m a doctor besides. I’m not leaving him.”

She picked up one of Roman’s hands and ran her fingers softly over his dark hair.

“It’s okay, baby. I’m here now. We’re going to figure this out and get you feeling better. Don’t be scared, Roman.”

Roman’s eyes were glassy now, an indication of the high fever that ravaged his small body. Lily could’ve just kicked herself. She’d had no idea he was sick. No wonder he’d acted out and slept all afternoon. She promised herself she would spoil the hell out of the kid if she could just take him home. She squeezed his hand when they started an IV, then squeezed again when he cried out as a needle pierced his skin to draw blood. She held his head as the doctors looked in his ears, nose and throat, and softly stroked his arm while they listened to his chest. His temperature had started to fall, which was good, and as it did he became more aware, but he hung onto Lily’s hand and stayed calm.

They began to give him antibiotics and fluids through his IV, and he began to perk up almost immediately. Of course, that meant a little more energy, which meant trying to fight with the nurses; he didn’t understand what was happening.

“Roman. You’re okay,” Lily softly stroked his jaw. “You’re at the hospital, kiddo. You’re sick. Let them work, kiddo. I’m right here.” She was relieved when she saw the recognition in his eyes. The nurses moved him to a quiet area while they waited for his test results, and he dozed off, but he didn’t let go of Lily’s hand. Soon Tony joined them. As Roman slept, they looked at one another.

“You okay?” Tony asked softly.

“Yeah. I’m okay. He scared the hell out of me…” Lily whispered.

“I know. Me too. But he already looks better, don’t you think?”

Lily gazed at Roman. He DID look better. His color had begun to return and the shivering had stopped. He seemed to actually be sleeping quite peacefully. Lily turned to Tony.

“You do realize that this means I can’t let him out of my sight until he’s better,” she said.

“I expect nothing less,” Tony replied.

“He deserves nothing less,” Lily murmured.

Shortly after that, a nurse came in with a diagnosis: strep, bronchitis, double ear infection. Armed with a list of prescriptions that Roman would need, and because his temperature had dropped so nicely, Lily and Tony were allowed to take Roman home with strict instructions to get him lots of rest and plenty of fluids, and return immediately if his fever spiked like that again. Lily pulled the car around and Tony carried Roman to it and crawled into the back seat, holding the boy in his arms. Roman still slept. Lily stopped at an all-night Walgreens.

As she waited for Roman’s prescriptions to be ready, Lily perused the aisles. What would a sick 9-year-old need? Lots of Gatorade. Lots of juice. Crackers, soup---no, not canned soup. She could make him homemade tomorrow. Popsicles. Lots and lots of Popsicles. Chapstick. Macaroni and cheese. Lily laughed at herself. She didn’t know if Roman even LIKED mac and cheese, and besides, it’s not like she’d never cared for a sick child before. Why did this seem so different?

Well, obviously, because he had called her Mama. He had needed her and called for her, and that was a great feeling. She wondered if he’d meant it, or if it had just been the fever talking but she decided she wasn’t going to worry about that for now. Roman was getting what he needed to feel better; that was what mattered.

After Lily paid for everything she headed back out to the car to find that both of her boys were sound asleep in the backseat. She couldn’t help but smile. Tony cradled Roman in his arms; Roman’s cheek rested against Tony’s chest. Tony’s eyes opened when he heard the door open.

“He okay?” Lily asked.

“Sleeping like a baby,” said Tony. “Whimpers a little here and there, but he’s okay.”

Lily nodded. When they arrived at the house, Tony carried Roman to help him use the bathroom and shower. Lily got out blankets and pillows and set up camp for them in the living room, knowing both she and Tony would be up the rest of the night to make sure Roman was okay. She got Roman’s medicines ready. Once he was in warm clean pajamas, Tony brought him to the living room and laid him on the couch. The boy immediately went back to sleep, but he was restless, calling out occasionally. Lily knelt beside him and rubbed soft circles on his back.

They tried to tuck a blanket around him, but it didn’t calm him. Lily reached out and felt his forehead; she could feel the fever coming back. They sat him up and made him drink some medicine, and then Tony reached out and took Lily’s hand.

“Go sit in the recliner; I know what he needs.”

Tony tenderly lifted Roman up off the sofa and laid him in Lily’s arms. Roman immediately curled up in a ball and nuzzled her neck in his sleep. Lily smiled. She tightened her arms around the child and held him close against her, brushing her fingers through his hair. Tony tucked a blanket around them. Roman’s entire body relaxed against her and he slept peacefully after that.

One or the other of them was never far from Roman while he recovered, and often, he spent his time snuggled between both of them on the couch. Lily called school and let them know that he’d been very sick so she was going to keep him home just a couple of extra days. Roman seemed to have given up on fighting them, instead allowing them to care for him how they saw fit. It was several nights before he even slept in his own bed again and when that happened, Lily laid with him for quite awhile after he’d dozed off.

By Monday, Roman’s throat felt considerably better, and he still occasionally ran a low fever, but he overall seemed stronger. Tony had decided it was okay to go to work, leaving the two of them alone. That suited them fine. All the time over the weekend spent holding and snuggling and talking and soothing had bonded them. And it was while Roman laid in Lily’s arms, only semi-awake, that he asked the question that had been burning a hole in him since the very first day.

“Why don’t you and Tony have any real children?”

“Well, why WOULD we when we’re having so much fun with our fake one?” She grinned at him but he didn’t return her smile.

“No, I’m serious,” Roman whispered. “Why? Why me instead?”

With a pang, Lily realized she was going to have to tell him. She hugged the child tight and braced herself.

Chapter Text

Roman felt Lily’s arms tighten around him. He immediately regretted asking the question, but...he needed to know.

“Tony and I have been trying to conceive a biological child since before we were married,” she began. “We both come from large families, and we both have always wanted to be parents. But also, we always figured we’d adopt some day as well, because we both subscribe to the philosophy that everyone deserves a chance.

“Obviously I’ve never had a baby. We’ve had a few miscarriages but nothing took. And we still wanted to be parents. So we decided fostering was the best choice for us.”

Roman stayed silent. He sensed Lily’s pain.

“We fostered a lot of kids, for a long time. Kids who’ve been through all different kinds of troubles. And we loved every one of them, still do, to be honest, and while they were here we loved them and cared for them and gave them the best life we could. And every time, eventually, they would get placed back with their parents. And we’d grieve for a little while, because that was hard, but with every one of them, we knew it was the right choice.”

Lily began absently rubbing her fingers up and down Roman’s spine.

“Then a couple of years ago, we were placed with a set of twins. Two little girls. Five years old. Natalie and Audrey. They’d both been molested by their mother’s boyfriend, and she’d known the whole time and done nothing. When they came to us they were terrified, withdrawn, and just miserable but in the year and a half that they lived with us, they grew so much, Roman. We worked HARD on creating a solid relationship with them, and then their mother’s rights were stripped. We decided we wanted to pursue adoption.

“The state tracked down their biological father and he agreed. So we did everything we needed to do, and signed the papers, and they were going to be ours forever and ever.”

Roman felt Lily choke back a sob, and his heart began to hurt.

“It was gonna be so perfect. You know? But in Texas, the biological parents have 90 days after the signing of the papers to change their minds. And 88 days---88 FUCKING DAYS---after we adopted those girls, their father decided to parent.”

Lily was crying openly now. Roman hated himself for making her relive this hurt. And for trying so hard to make her and Tony not want him. God, what an idiot he’d been. They chose him. They wanted him. And he had been nothing but an ass. He allowed himself to tighten his arms around her.

“That was it for me for awhile, Ro,” Lily whispered softly. “I...I hurt. It hurt too much for a long time to even consider trying again. And then, just about a month ago, I went to Tony and told him I was sick of being sad. I told him it was a huge leap of faith, but I was ready to try again. He’d been ready for awhile, I think, but he knew I was still a mess inside so he waited for me. That’s part of what I love so much about him.
“So...about two weeks ago now, our social worker and good friend Cassie called us. She said she had a new child that she was responsible for, and she really wanted us to meet him. She said he was frightened and angry, but that he was an awesome kid. So we went to meet him. And the second I laid eyes on you, Roman…” Lily tilted his face up so their eyes met.
“The second I saw you, I knew. Because I saw in your eyes everything that I had been feeling in my heart. I needed you. I still have a lot of healing to do, kiddo, and I know you do too. But we can heal together.”

“What if my mother takes me back?” Roman whispered.

“Your mother...the way it works is, she hasn’t done anything horrible enough to you to warrant her forcibly losing her rights, but she’s messed up enough times that she won’t regain custody of you. All it means is that you’ll be required to go to visitation until you turn 14 and can decide for yourself if you want to continue. But she’s not getting you back in the sense that you’ll go live with her permanently again. Do you WANT her to get you back, kiddo?”

“No! No, you don’t...I love her. But she doesn’t love me. She never wanted me. My whole life she’s told me I was a mistake. Sometimes she even said she should’ve killed me before I was born. She hates me. I love her so much but she hates me…” Roman could feel tears well in his eyes. Then Lily said the last thing he expected.

“It’s okay to love her, Roman. And it’s okay to be furious. Sometimes, the wrong people get the right things. I used to get so very angry that so many people who had no business having babies got to have the one thing I wanted more than anything in the world. But you know what? I think that was just the way it was meant to be. Maybe I wasn’t meant to have a baby. I’ll never know. But something I DO know is that I was meant to have you.”

Roman buried his face into Lily for a minute. Then he asked the question that REALLY terrified him.

“Are you and Tony ever going to send me away?”

“Roman,” Lily said, and there was nothing but honesty in her eyes, “you will stay here with us for as long as you want to. It’s your choice, baby. It’s always going to be your choice. We were serious about that. Of course we pray you choose us, and eventually you’re going to have to let us know. But there’s nothing you could ever do that would make us not want you.”

“Do you...do you promise you’ll never hurt me?” Roman whispered, but once again, he was completely unprepared for her answer.

“No,” Lily said softly. “I can’t promise you that.”

“You...you can’t?” Roman was confused.

“No. I can’t. But I promise you that if I ever do hurt you, I’ll do what I need to do to fix it. I can promise you that I’ll take care of you and hold you tight and be there for you when you need me. I can promise that I am going to keep you safe, and I can promise that no matter what happens, I’m going to love you with everything I have. And I can promise you that I’m going to help you heal from all of this hurt. It won’t be easy. But the best things in life never are.”

Roman considered everything she had just said. And he realized something. He believed her. He truthfully, honestly, believed her. And suddenly, he knew there was no other place in the world for him than right here with these people. He slowly nodded his head.

“I’m willing to work for it, kiddo,” Lily murmured. “Are you?”

Roman looked her straight in the eyes.

“Yes,” he whispered. “I think I am.”

She held him tighter and stroked his hair for awhile. He nestled in her arms and closed his eyes. He could feel himself growing sleepy. But as he drifted off, he heard her say quietly,

“I love you, Roman.”

And Roman Reigns heard himself mumble as he fell asleep,

“Love you, too.”

__________________

Roman slipped comfortably into a routine with the Girardi’s. Once he started school, he discovered that he did indeed love it, and he was actually a pretty good student with the proper support. He and his parents developed a system with his teacher and principal. When he needed to escape for a few minutes, he was given a green folder and asked to take it to Mrs. Cruz. Once in her office, he would sit in the recliner and watch the fish in the tank until he felt secure enough to go back to class and continue. It was pretty easy though. Mrs. Vaverka was totally incredible. She did indeed love science and animals. Roman discovered he had quite an affinity for reading and math (he was pretty sure nothing could make him love history though). After school each day he took a bus to the nearby community center, where he did his homework and played basketball until either Lily or Tony got off work and came for him. He got suspended from school once for fighting about a month after he began, but it didn’t take long for Lily and Tony to understand the stress and pain that his supervised visitation with his mother caused him. They began scheduling those visits on Friday afternoons, so he’d have the weekend to work through his hurt, and it really seemed to help; plus they could be nearby to help him learn to channel his anger in a better way. One Saturday after she had failed to show up for him yet AGAIN, when he was angrily pounding into the dirt, helping Lily prepare her summer garden, he suddenly dropped to his knees, an anguished sob escaping. Tony was out of town, so Lily regarded him carefully as she sat beside him in the dirt and leaned against the house.

“Talk to me, Ro. Tell me what you’re feeling,” she had cajoled him gently.

“I HATE HER!” Roman had sobbed, pounding the dirt again.

“I know.” Lily was slowly snaking her way closer to Roman.

“I never did anything to her. I never did ANYTHING!”

“I know, baby.”

“Why doesn’t she want me?” And Roman had crawled against Lily and wept. Lily simply wrapped her arms around him tightly and held him close, letting him have some time, before she started stroking his back.

“I don’t know, Roman. I really don’t. But I want you.”

“I’m never going to be yours. You know that right?” He had sniffled against her.

“Baby boy, you’ve been mine since the second I saw your face. Ever since that moment you’ve occupied a place in my heart that will never ever be filled by another soul.”

Roman never forgave his mother for the way she treated him, but the pain was somehow easier after that.

He played football. He and Tony went fishing when the weather was nice. They took him on vacations---real ones. For the first time in his life, he left Houston to visit the beach. He actually laughed at the rough tickle of sand between his toes. His new life was amazing, and he could hardly believe that he was there to live it. But he was thankful.

He met Lily’s family in San Antonio, and then they took him to meet Tony’s in New York. Everything became familiar and welcoming and for the first time in Roman’s life, he felt whole. He felt happy.

The summer after his 12th birthday saw him spending his days not vacationing hanging out at the community center while his parents (yes, that’s what he’d begun to call them) worked. And it was at the community center one hot July day that he met the person who was going to change his life all over again.

As Roman and his friends shot hoops, Roman noticed a boy standing alone on the sidelines watching the game wistfully. He stopped the game, asking his friends to hold up.

“Hey. Wanna play?” The boy shook his head and backed away.

He didn’t seem much younger than Roman, and he was only a little bit shorter, but he was skinny. Too skinny. He had wild honey blond hair, the same color as Lily’s, and blue eyes that held an all too familiar expression. Roman let him go, but he made up his mind right then that somehow, he was going to become this kid’s friend.

For the next three days, the kid showed up to watch the guys play ball, and for the next three days, he declined Roman’s invitation without saying a single word. It was the weekend after that. Roman stayed home, did his chores, did all his normal stuff, but he couldn’t get the blond kid off his mind.

On Monday, Roman noticed him before the game even began and this time he was determined to at least get his name.

“Hey,” he approached the boy, who regarded him cautiously.

“Hey,” he replied.

“So...my name’s Roman,” he offered.

“Oh.” The kid was kind of obnoxious, but Roman was undeterred.

“And you’re name is?” He pressed.

“Zulu, queen of the dwarf people,” he answered with a sneer. Roman raised an eyebrow. And he thought HE’D been difficult.

“Okay, Zulu,” Roman smirked. “Nice name, by the way. I’ve seen you watching us play ball. You should join.”

The kid was clearly on the verge of walking away so Roman quickly added,

“You know, unless you’re scared.”

The boy turned around, a gleam in his blue eyes.

“That a challenge?”

Roman shrugged.

“Only if you accept it.”

It didn’t take long once the kid got out on the court for Roman to realize that he was good. Really good. He was quick and crafty, and his 3-point shot was ridiculous. Roman was no slouch though, and the two ran circles around each other long after everyone else had given up and moved on to something else. In fact, they played until Lily showed up to get him.

“If you have to leave now, I win,” the kid said. Roman shrugged.

“Fair enough. Rematch tomorrow?” He asked.

Zulu looked him square in the eyes.

“Wouldn’t miss it,” he said evenly.

“So who was your friend Ro?” Lily asked him on the ride home. She kept wrinkling her nose, and Roman realized he couldn’t smell too pretty.

“Actually...he wouldn’t tell me his name,” Roman said slowly. “I mean, he said his name was Zulu but I have this feeling…”

“That he was lying,” Lily supplied and Roman nodded.

“Well, yeah, because I don’t think anyone is really named Zulu, are they?” Roman asked.

“There can’t be many,” Lily responded.

That night “Zulu” was all Roman could think about.

The next day, he wasn’t there, or the next day, or the next. On Friday he showed up, but he was moving with a pronounced limp and was clearly in no condition to play. Roman had intended to offer to hang out with him somewhere else at the center, but the kid managed to avoid him yet again.

Chapter Text

By Monday Roman was fed up. There was something about this kid, something compelling, and not in a good way. Roman was more than a little concerned. But his new unnamed friend showed up that day, and though he didn’t have QUITE the same spring in his step, he was still a force to be reckoned with on the court. After they played til they could play no more, they both laid down head to head on benches in the locker room. It was then that the kid made a proclamation.

“My name’s really Dean.”

“Yeah, you don’t look much like a Zulu,” Roman said with a grin, and Dean actually smiled.

“Where’d you learn to play so good?” Dean asked him.

“Well, my dad---foster dad actually---we play a lot in the evenings. Like after school and stuff. And on weekends.”

“Foster parents huh?”

“Yeah. I’ve lived with them...I guess about two and a half years now? It sucked at first but now it’s all good.”

“Then I guess you’re lucky. But...what’s with your real parents?” Dean wanted to know.

“My dad bailed when I was little and my mom is...well, she’s pretty much useless. I’m supposed to see her once a month but she barely ever shows anymore. Lily and Tony are the only REAL parents I’ve ever had. They’re cool. You should come over sometime. We could shoot hoops and then go swimming.”

“We can do that here,” Dean reminded him.

“Well...true. But the pool at home is different. And we have a ton of pets.” Dean just laughed.

About that time, Tony came into the locker room and signaled to Roman. That signal meant, “hurry up, I’m starving!” Roman turned to Dean, but Dean spoke before he could say anything.

“THAT’S your dad? He’s carrying a gun. Is he a cop?”

“FBI,” said Roman proudly. “Look, I gotta go, but tomorrow, I’m gonna wipe the court with you.”

“Not on your best day,” Dean said, and both boys laughed again.

______________

 

The next day Dean wasn’t around. Nor was he there on Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday. Roman began to worry again.

By the following Monday, Dean finally showed up but he was sullen and grumpy again. It made Roman wonder what went on when he wasn’t around that caused him to come back so...mean. But this time it was a little different.

“You ever wish you just weren’t here?” Dean asked Roman as they were laying on their benches in the locker room.

“Like...how do you mean?” Roman was confused.

“I mean just not here.”

“As in dead? Or as in never existed in the first place?” Roman questioned.

“Dude, does it matter?”

“Well, yeah, kinda.”

“Roman. Seriously. Do you ever stop thinking?” Roman grinned.

“I guess I don’t anymore. But there was a time when I’d wake up every morning and just wonder why I was still here.”

“That’s heavy,” Dean muttered.

“Well, you asked.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I did.”

“How about you, Dean? Do you ever wish that you weren’t here?”

Dean thought for a moment.

“Sometimes, everything is great. But sometimes I think...sometimes I really think that I just can’t take it anymore, Rome. Sometimes I really think that.”

A spark of concern shot through Roman.

“Can’t take what anymore? Dean, what do you mean? What’s going on?”

Dean was silent for a long time. Then he shook his head.

“Nothing. Just...it’s nothing. I’ll be fine. Look...I should go. Tomorrow?”

“Yeah...wait, no,” Roman remembered something. “My mom isn’t working tomorrow. She and I are driving out to the coast for the day...hey. You should come with us.”

Dean looked at him and just shook his head.

“I can’t,” he said softly.

“Why not? It’ll be fun; we can hang out at the beach and----”

“I said I can’t. I gotta go.” And without another word, Dean stood up and left the locker room.

______________

 

Lily could feel tension radiating off of Roman. He didn’t indicate it, but something was bothering him. Tony, who was out of the country, had noticed it too when he’d briefly spoken with Roman on the phone. Lily knew that her son would come to her if he needed help, and she knew he was on the verge when he came to her at nearly midnight and laid his head on her lap. She waited patiently, playing with his dark wavy hair. It was getting really long now; they’d never asked him to cut it, and he had never asked them to get it cut. It didn’t bother them anyway; Tony had long hair as long as Lily had known him. She liked it. So rather than try to convince Roman to cut his off, they opted to teach him how to take care of it instead.

“Mommy?” Lily raised an eyebrow. Roman only called her Mommy when he wanted something he knew he wasn’t likely to get.
“Yes?”

“What do you do if...if you want to help someone, but you’re only guessing what you need to help them with and if you’re right it’s something really really bad but even if you’re right you can’t prove it anyway?”

“Ro, I have no idea what you’re talking about…” Lily was trying to piece what he’d just said together. Roman took a breath and tried again.

“What if you think something bad is happening to someone you care about, and you think you know what it is, but you aren’t sure and they won’t tell you? What do you do?”

“I’d have to know more specifics about the situation, kiddo.” Lily turned Roman so that he could look up into his eyes. “Is there something you’d like to talk to me about, Roman?”

Roman looked up into Lily’s eyes, and Lily’s eyes probed his in return. There was no doubt about it; something was bugging him. He was way past lying to her anymore. She smiled down at him.

“Because if there is, you know you can talk to me about anything, right?”

Roman nodded slowly. Lily brushed his hair back from his forehead.

“I think someone is hurting my friend, Mom. I think someone is really hurting him badly.”

Lily softly stroked his cheek.

“Okay...why do you think that?”

“Well...because today he asked me if I ever wish I wasn’t here, and then he said he just can’t take it anymore sometimes…” Roman pulled her hand out of his hair so he could trace her fingers with his.

“Did he say what ‘it’ is?”

“No,” Roman whispered.

“Okay. So what else makes you think something bad is happening?”

“Because...because there have been a few times when he’s been gone from the center for days at a time, and when he comes back he’s in pain. Like it’s hard for him to walk upright and stuff. And when he comes back after that, he’s not himself anymore for awhile.”

“Have you ever seen any bruises or anything, Ro?” Lily questioned.

“No ma’am,” Roman whispered, dropping his gaze.

“And your friend won’t talk to you about it?”

“Not so far. Just really weird stuff, like what I already told you.”

Lily considered her son’s words. IF this friend was being abused, the gut feeling of a 12-year-old wasn’t going to get anyone very far if the friend wouldn’t tell anyone about it in detail. On the other hand...if the kid was in danger...Lily looked deep into Roman’s eyes again.

“I assume we’re talking about Dean?”

“Y...yes,” Roman whispered again.

“You really care about him, huh?”

“I just...he’s my friend, Mommy. I don’t want anyone to hurt him.”

“Oh, kiddo. I know you don’t; of course you don’t. But maybe no one is, Ro. Maybe there’s a good explanation.”

Roman looked at her squarely.

“Can you think of one?”

Lily had to admit she couldn’t. But she couldn’t just go knocking people’s doors down either.

“Ro, look,” she began but the boy interrupted.

“I don’t know, Mom. Can’t we just...like ask Dad to run a background check or something on his mother?” Lily chuckled.

“No, Smarty Pants. That’s a pretty sharp idea, but your dad can’t do that. I think...I think that for now, the best thing you can do is keep being a friend to Dean. Do you think he’s thinking about hurting himself?”

“No...not really. I don’t THINK so…” said Roman slowly.

“Then you be a good friend to him, baby, and keep talking to him. If he trusts you he’ll open up to you and the second he says a single thing that confirms your theory, you come tell me. Even if you have to call me at work, you let me or Daddy know. And maybe...when I pick you up on Wednesday, why don’t you introduce me to Dean? It can’t hurt for me to try to start building a relationship with him.”

“If anyone does hurt him, can he come live here?”

Lily stroked her son’s hair. His eyelids had grown heavy; she knew he was worn out. It had been a long day and they had to get up early to drive down to Corpus Christi for the day.

“Ro, you know I can’t promise that. But here’s what I can promise. If we find out for certain that someone hurt Dean, I will do absolutely everything in my power to make sure that person is never allowed to go near him again. Everything will work out, baby. We’ll find way to help him.”

 

_______________

 

On Wednesday morning when his mother dropped Roman off at the community center, he was eager to go in and find Dean. He’d had fun with Lily the day before, sunbathing, playing in the Gulf, and eating plenty of fresh seafood, but he was ready to return and find his new friend. He wanted to make sure that Dean was okay. A quick sweep of the basketball court told him Dean wasn’t there. He didn’t seem to be in the art room, or the game room, or the pool, either. Panic swept through Roman; what if he was gone again? What if something had happened? He was just about to go to the office to see if any of the counselors had seen him when his eyes fell on him. He was huddled in a corner of the gym, up near the bleachers, practically out of sight. From where he was standing, Roman could tell his friend was trembling.

“Dean?” Roman approached him carefully, not entirely sure how he’d react. He had to hear him, but he didn’t show any sort of recognition at all. Roman knew not to touch him by the vibe he was giving off, so instead he just sat down across from his friend and waited. “I can’t go back there,” Dean finally spoke after at least 45 minutes of just sitting together quietly, and his voice was barely audible.

“What happened?” Roman whispered.

“I just can’t. I can’t go back.” Dean’s voice was still deathly quiet but he didn’t elaborate.

“Dean...tell me why. You have to tell someone what happened. If it was something bad, they won’t make you go back. But if you don’t tell anyone how can they help?”

“No one can help,” a sob escaped Dean’s lips. “No one can help me, Rome. I’m stuck. I’m completely stuck. If I go home he’ll---but if I run away they’ll find me and send me back and then he’ll kill me.”

“No, Dean,” Roman desperately whispered. “No, we can help. I promise, someone can help. I could call my mom, or---”

“No. No, no, no, Roman, you can’t tell anyone. You can’t. That’ll just make everything worse, please…” Dean was beginning to panic.

“Tell anyone what, Dean? I don’t even know what’s going on. What’s happening? You can talk to me. Just talk to me.”

“My mom...my mom’s new boyfriend…” Dean closed his eyes and leaned his head against the wall.

“Is he hurting you?”

Dean laughed drily.

“He hurts me all the time, Roman. He’s always hitting me or something. But then...my mother is an addict, right? And when she goes too long without a fix, it’s not pretty. So yesterday he told her he’d get her some stuff if...if she’d let him...use...me.”

Rage surged through Roman. Dean had been molested, maybe worse. All kinds of things began clicking into place in Roman’s mind.

“I can’t get away. But I can’t go back.” Dean whispered softly. “I’m just stuck.”

“No. You’re not stuck. Dean, my parents will help you; you just have to tell my mom what’s happening and---”

“No, Rome,” Dean said, sadness in his voice. “There’s nothing she can do . There’s nothing anyone can do.”

“You can’t just keep going back, Dean,” Roman pleaded. “It won’t get better on its own. You have to be strong and take the first step.”

Dean snorted.

“Strong? You think I’m going through all this because I’m not STRONG?”

“No, dude, I didn’t mean---”

“Just leave me alone, Roman. I don’t want your help. I can manage on my own. I’ve been managing on my own my whole life anyway. Just go away.”

And with that, Dean got up and walked off.

Roman didn’t know what to do. If he told his parents, Dean would likely never speak to him again, and there were no guarantees that it would even make a difference. But if he DIDN’T tell them and something truly awful happened to Dean, then...then it might as well be like Roman killed Dean himself. He wouldn’t be able to live with that. He had to tell his parents.

 

______________

 

Tony landed in Houston around 1 pm and out of habit, immediately checked his phone. He had five missed calls---THAT was odd. Then he began to panic when he realized that every one of them was from the community center. Roman. Something must’ve happened to Roman, and Roman must have not been able to tell them that he wouldn’t be available. Tony glanced at the dashboard clock; 1:17. If he remembered correctly, Lily had three surgeries today so she’d be hard to catch, but the community center was less than 20 minutes from where he was right then, 10 if he flashed his credentials and ignored the speed limit. He didn’t think twice; he just drove.

He made it in record time, leaped out of the Escalade before it was completely in park, and flew into the building. As he thundered in the door, he happened to look up into the open door of the director’s office. And the first person he saw was...Roman. Roman, who didn’t look hurt. Relief and annoyance washed over him all at once. It was short lived though, as he caught Roman’s eye. The boy leaped to his feet, ran from the office, flung himself at Tony, and immediately began babbling.

Tony laid his hands on Roman’s shoulders.

“Hey. Hey, it’s okay. I’m here now, buddy. What happened?”

Before Roman could respond, the director of the center appeared behind Tony.

“Mr. Girardi? Can you and Roman step into my office please? We have a small situation.”

“Is Roman okay?” Tony didn’t move, rooted in that spot, arms tight around his frightened son. He had no clue what was going on, but damned if he wasn’t going to get to the bottom of it.

“Roman is just fine,” Jeff answered. “But we need to talk. Come on.”

Once they sat down, Roman poured out the whole story again, and then Jeff let Tony in on what had happened this morning: Dean had bolted from the center. Despite Roman’s protests, the center had called home and informed his mother anyway, but when Roman told them about the potential abuse, they had called the police, who were out looking for him now. No one had seen Dean since. He wasn’t home, and neither was his mother OR the boyfriend.

Tony tightened his arm around Roman. He was honestly really impressed with his son; telling the adults who could help his friend had taken guts, especially knowing that Dean would probably be furious when he found out. Roman was clearly terribly upset though. His eyes were wide and scared, and he sat with his head laid on Tony’s shoulder, but every so often a tremor shook through him. He held strong, until an hour or so later when Lily walked into the center office. Roman took one look at his mother---and burst into tears.

While Lily sat and comforted Roman, Tony took that opportunity to begin to call in some favors. This wasn’t necessarily a job for the FBI, but he had the resources, and he had the names of two people now rumored to be involved in drugs, so it wasn’t that big of a stretch. He learned that Dean’s mother had racked up the petty convictions for doing drugs, but what bothered him was that there was no record of the child. Where did Dean go when his mother was jailed? Tony had a feeling he’d rather not know. Then he turned his resources to the boyfriend and shuddered when “registered sex offender” was the first thing that popped up on his laptop screen.

Of all the lowlifes in the world, Tony hated pedofiles the most. In fact, he tended to not get those cases, as he nearly lost his job every time he had to interrogate one. Most of the time, Tony was very good at smoothly questioning criminals, but if that criminal was accused of harming a child, of taking away their innocence...Tony shuddered. He and Lily had fostered kids who’d been sexually abused before and that was always the worst. Luckily his wife was 10 times stronger than he, or he’d have cracked under the pressure after the very first one.

While he was researching, his phone vibrated in his pocket. He looked at the text and got a sly smile on his face. All it said was,

“We’ve got ‘em.”

Chapter Text

Tony hopped up and went into the office and draped his arm around Roman’s unoccupied shoulder.

“Listen, bud. I want you to go home with Mom, okay?”

“I can’t. I can’t, Dad, not until you find Dean!”

“Roman. I’m going to take care of it. I promise you, son. I’m going to take care of all of this. You were so brave, buddy. I know sometimes telling something like this is the hardest thing in the whole world, but you were so brave. I’m proud of you, Roman.”

“Daddy, please. Please don’t make me---” Tony met Lily’s eyes, saw the spark of recognition.

“Shhhh, it’s okay,” she soothed. “Come on, Ro. We can’t do much to help from here anyway. Let’s just go home and talk and get some stuff done...it’ll be okay, kiddo. Come on.”

Lily stood Roman up and led him to the door before offering him the keys to the Highlander.

“Go start it up for me. No, you may not drive.” Lily instructed, eliciting a laugh from even Roman.

She turned to Tony once Roman was out of earshot.

“Okay. What’s going on?” She asked quietly.

“They’ve found him, Lu. I ran the names of his mother and the boyfriend, found out some stuff, and sent locals to look and they were in the process of beating the kid senseless when they found him but they found him. He’s being transported to the hospital as we speak. Call Cassie; beg her to get in on this one. I’m going to the hospital to see if he’s okay. Probably best not to tell Roman until I know for sure...I’ll come home tonight and we’ll have a family meeting.”

Lily hugged Tony.

“You are my HERO.” She whispered. He smiled back.

“I know,” Tony replied. He just hoped it had happened in time.

 

______________

 

“Ro, did you eat lunch?”

“No, I’m not hungry,” Roman replied tearfully. “This is all my fault, Mama.”

Lily immediately found the closest parking lot, parked the car, walked around to Roman’s side and hugged her son close.

“Listen to me,” she whispered. “This is NOT your fault, Roman. You’re the only person who’s done anything to help Dean. You’re a good friend. You knew something was wrong and you found people to help. That was all you could’ve done, baby boy, and you DID it. And Dean is tough. You’ve gotta have faith in him.”

“I do. I do. I just hate those people for hurting him. Especially his own mother.”

“I know, baby. I get it; believe me, I get it. Now come on. Let’s go home and wait for Daddy.”

Lily fussed over her son the rest of the afternoon. She hated that he was so worried. He didn’t respond to anything. Even Honey Badger couldn’t console him. Eventually Lily just picked up the book they had been reading together, a book called “You’ll Like It Here. Everybody Does.” She wrapped them both in the throw on the sofa and read to him out loud. She knew he was listening, and she felt him relax and when his breathing evened out, she knew he was asleep. She held him anyway.

Roman was still napping on the couch when Tony arrived home. Lily managed to crawl out from behind him without waking him up, then wrapped the blanket around him. Honey Badger jumped up to take her spot, and Roman rolled over and snuggled up tight against the dog.

“So what did you find out?” Lily didn’t even wait for Tony to sit down at the table. Tony looked up at her.

“Physically he’ll heal. He’s all bruised up and he has a lump on his head and his wrist is fractured.”

“Sons of…” Lily stopped herself but she was livid. Of all the rotten, awful people in the world, to pimp her son out for drugs. Lily wanted to tear someone apart.

“I know. I know. He’s going to spend a day or two in the hospital, and his wrist is probably going to need surgery.”

“I can take care of that,” Lily began but Tony interrupted her.

“No, you can’t,” he said.

“What do you mean I can’t? It’s kind of my job to---” Tony grinned at her.

“It’s a conflict of interest in this case.”

“Conflict of interest? How is it a conflict of---ohhhhhh,” a lightbulb went off in Lily’s head.

“What’s a conflict of interest? Why can’t you operate on Dean?” Roman, clearly agitated, demanded from the doorway. Lily motioned him over to her and wrapped him in a hug.

“Because you don’t operate on family members,” Lily said, waiting for Roman to get it.

“But Dean isn’t a family member,” Roman argued.

“Not yet,” said Tony with a smile.

“What?” He was clearly confused.

“Ro...you asked if Dean could stay with us. Turns out he’s going to,” Lily said.

“You...you mean...REALLY?” Roman shrieked.

“Really,” Tony replied. “I’ve talked to Cassie and she’s getting him an emergency foster status so that when he gets out of the hospital he can stay here.”

“Hospital? Why? What happened to him?”

Tony went back over what he’d already told Lily about Dean’s physical condition. Roman’s face fell.

“He must hate me. He didn’t want me to tell. He wanted me to promise I wouldn’t tell.”

“He doesn’t hate you, buddy. He’s incredibly angry right now, but not with you. If you hadn’t told when you did, it could’ve ended up so much worse for Dean. He knows that.”

“I want to go see him.”

“Tomorrow, buddy. I’m going to take an overnight bag up tonight and spend the night there so he won’t be alone. He’s pretty scared and in a great deal of pain. Tomorrow you and Mom can go spend the day with him.”

“Except I have a surgery scheduled for tomorrow…” Lily said slowly.

“You do? I didn’t realize…”

“Can you get away for the afternoon and I’ll spend the morning?”

“No,” mused Tony. “I’ve got to get stuff knocked out the next two days, because I’m going to work from home for the next two weeks after that.”

“Really? Why?” Roman wanted to know.

“Well, someone has to stay home to get Dean acclimated and it’s not really fair to ask Mama to just cancel everything, is it? Of course, I’ll need your help, bud. You okay with staying home from the center for awhile?”

“Yes! We can go exploring and watch movies and swim!” Roman could hardly contain his excitement.

“It’s going to be hard for Dean to swim with a broken arm,” Lily pointed out.

“Hmmm….well, Roman and I will just have to build him some sort of flotation device so his arm can stay elevated,” Tony replied.

“That sounds like great fun, but that doesn’t change our problem with tomorrow.”

“Well, he may just have to hang out on his own for a little while,” Tony began, though he hated the idea.

“Why can’t I just stay with him?” Roman asked.

“Well…” Tony mused.

“I suppose we could ask the hospital if Roman could hang out with Dean.”

“If it’s not okay, I’ll come up for the afternoon and then spend the evening at the office,” Tony said. “But I’ve got to get some stuff together and get back up to the hospital. By the way, Roman---Dean seems like a fun kid. I really like him.”

Roman just grinned.

“Mom, Dad, please can I go visit Dean? Like tonight?”

“Not tonight, Buddy, okay? He’s had a lot of medicine to make his pain go away and to help with some of the anxiety. He was finally asleep when I left and I’ve got a nurse who agreed to text me if he wakes up but I haven’t heard from her…”

“But if he’s scared I can help him. Please?” Roman was beginning to cry again.

Tony watched Lily sweep Roman into her arms, watched his son bury his face into her neck. She began rubbing lazy circles onto his lower back.

“Ro. Dad’s right,” she soothed. There was something about her touch that calmed their boy, and Tony wrapped his arms around them both. Finally Roman nodded.

“Okay. Okay. I’ll stay. But hurry and get back to him Dad. Please?”

Tony grinned.

“You got it, buddy.”

 

______________________

 

It was late and Roman was tired, but he couldn’t sleep. He’d tried everything but all he could do was think about Dean. With a sigh, he finally got up out of bed; he knew what he needed. He felt a little silly as he traipsed down the hall; he WAS 12 years old after all. But desperate times called for desperate measures.

“Mama?”

Roman stood in the doorway of his parents’ bedroom, waiting for the answer he knew would come.

“Come here, baby,” came Lily’s murmured reply. She held back the covers so he could crawl into bed beside her, and then she pulled him close to her.

“Couldn’t sleep, Ro?” Lily whispered. He shook his head.

“It’s okay. I couldn’t either.” Her voice was quiet. “I can’t stop thinking about Dean.”

“Me too. Mom, is he going to be okay?”

“Daddy said that physically he’s going heal just fine.”

“What about...what about not physically?”

He felt Lily smile against his neck.

“That’d be emotionally,” she said. “I don’t know, Ro. It’s...there are all different kinds of abuse, and different people react different ways, and they need different things in order to recover. I think Dean is young and strong, and that’s a good thing. I also think he’s going to struggle with trust at first.”

“Just like me,” Roman said quietly. “Except I was never abused.”

“You were abused, kiddo. Neglect is abuse. And yes; it was hard for you to trust and I know in some situations it still is, sometimes.” Roman felt her arms tighten around him and he nuzzled his face into her neck. “I think that having you around, though, will be the best thing FOR Dean. He’s going to see you and your example and that’s going to help him because he’ll know that if you feel safe, he can too.”

“I just want him to be okay,” Roman whispered into Lily.

“I know, baby. I know. We’re going to give him love and support and all the patience in the world. And he’s going to be okay because we’re going to help him be okay.

“I love you, Mommy. I love Daddy too,” said Roman with a contented sigh.

“I love you too, Roman. I love you so much. You are the very best thing that ever happened to Daddy and me.” Her fingers found Roman’s hair, and it wasn’t too much longer before he found his eyelids grow heavy and then he fell asleep in Lily’s arms.

He woke up to Lily murmuring softly in his ear,

“Come on, baby, wake up. It’s time to get dressed and go see Dean.”

Roman got up and took a shower, dressed quickly, and threw some Blu Rays and video games into his duffel bag. Looking around, he also opted to grab some books and a few of his Sports Illustrated magazines. He didn’t want Dean to be bored during his hospital stay. Once he was satisfied he had everything Dean would need, he went to the kitchen, where Lily was feeding dogs and cats.

“Ready, kiddo?” Lily asked him.

Roman shrugged. Suddenly he was more than a little bit nervous. Tony had said that Dean wasn’t mad at him, but he suspected Dean hadn’t exactly jumped at the chance to pour his heart out to Tony either. On the other hand, Tony had said that Dean seemed like a fun kid, and how could he know that unless they’d talked at least a little. Roman sighed.

“It’s gonna be okay, Ro,” Lily said quietly, hugging him. “C’mon, we can stop and get breakfast on the way.”

They arrived at the hospital armed with food from McDonald’s and got on an elevator. Lily pushed the button for the 11th floor. By the time the door opened again and they arrived in front of Dean’s room, Roman was shaking a little. What was he afraid of? Scratch that; he knew the answer. Despite everything that had taken place over the last several weeks, Roman had never seen Dean with a cut, a bruise, or anything else that would give away what Dean had been going through. Now, though...he knew Dean didn’t look good. Even if he was going to be okay, it was hard for Roman to think about his friend in pain, and he couldn’t pretend it wasn’t happening if he could actually see it. And besides that...he didn’t know what he was supposed to say.

Lily seemed able to sense all of this, though, and she ran her fingers through Roman’s hair.

“Wait and see how he feels, kiddo,” she whispered. “Don’t put any pressure on yourself just yet. Just wait and see how it goes. If he doesn’t feel like talking we don’t have to talk. Let’s just go with it. Okay?”

Roman nodded and heaved a deep breath. Then he swung Dean’s door open and stepped inside.

Dean was asleep, and Roman felt relieved. Tony looked exhausted, but he immediately got up and swept Lily and Roman into a huge bear hug.

“How’d last night go?” Lily asked him. Tony sighed.

“Could’ve been better, but I’ve seen way worse, too. The first anxiety med they have him made him freak out, so we had to wait for it to wear off, and THAT was tough. He’s really afraid his mother and the boyfriend are going to come back for him.” Roman’s heart ached for his friend. He remembered that fear all too well, the fear of the unknown, of not knowing where he’d end up next, of not knowing what was going to happen to him. In Dean’s case, he reckoned, he thought he DID know what was going to happen next and that probably felt even worse. And there was nothing Roman could do; no way he could speed up the process of Dean learning that he was safe now and that the Girardi’s could be trusted, and that no one was ever going to be allowed to hurt him again. All he could do was be patient. He suddenly had a new respect for how patient Lily and Tony had been with HIM in the beginning.

His parents had been talking and he realized he’d missed a lot the conversation. Tony was telling Lily that he wasn’t sure he should leave, musing that maybe he could work from the hospital. Then Lily was telling him to go, that they’d be just fine. Then she was kissing Tony on the cheek, and then he was hugging Roman goodbye and then...then he was gone.

Lily and Roman looked at each other. Then Lily smiled at him.

“You tired? I think Dean may sleep for a little while yet, so you might as well get some rest too. Daddy thinks it could be a long day…” she wrapped her arm around him.

“I’m not tired. I’m okay,” Roman said, but he rested his head on Lily’s shoulder anyway. It didn’t take him long to doze off.

He woke up to Lily gently shaking his shoulder, soft moaning in the background, and a strange voice speaking with a sense of urgency somewhere in the room. Then his mother’s voice.

“Hang on. Roman’s awake. Come here, Ro.” She guided him towards Dean’s bed and then he understood. A nurse was trying to calm Dean, who was crying silently, curled in the fetal position. Lily pulled a chair next to Dean’s bed and indicated that Roman should sit down. When Dean saw Roman, he began stuttering.

“R-Rome? R-r-r-oman?”

“Hey, Dean. Hey, man. Don’t cry. It’s okay. They can never hurt you again, Dean.”

“H-he said he’d stay w-w-ith m-me til m-m-m-morning,” Dean stammered.

“Who did?” Roman asked quietly.

“Your d-dad,” Dean moaned.

“Oh. Dean, he did. He was here when Mom and I got here but now it’s---” Roman looked around at his mother for help.

“9:45,” Lily supplied.

“It’s 9:45, dude. He went to work. That’s all. He’ll be back in a few more hours.” Roman thought a moment, then offered his hand to Dean. He felt his mother wrap her arms around his chest and rest her chin on his shoulder.

“This is my mom,” Roman continued, feeling stronger suddenly. “Her name’s Lily. She’s awesome, Dean. Both of my parents are amazing. I know it’s hard; it was hard for me too at first. But you have to try and trust them. They’re going to keep you safe, just like they keep me safe. I know it’s hard but...you have to try.” Lily squeezed his shoulder. She wordlessly reached her right hand down Roman’s arm to lay it on top of the hand that Dean was squeezing. Dean flinched at first but as soon as he realized that she meant him no harm, he relaxed. His tears were drying and his breathing evened. He closed one black eye.

Roman had to admit that aside from two black eyes and his wrist in a brace, Dean didn’t look half bad. He was obviously terrified but Roman figured it could’ve been so much worse.

“You’re gonna be okay, Dean,” Roman heard Lily murmur. “What can we do for you? Are you cold or thirsty or anything?”

“Can I have some applesauce?” Dean whispered. “I had applesauce last night.”

“You can have whatever you want, boy-o,” Lily replied. “I’ll be right back.”

“Is she always like this?” Dean asked as soon as Lily left the room.

“Like what?” Roman wanted to know, not sure what his friend meant.

“Like...like her eyes, man. Her eyes really care about me. You can just tell.”

“Ha! Yeah, I know exactly what you mean, and yes, she’s always like that. The first day I met her, I was so pissed off at the world but I still had this urge to just beg her to hug me and fix everything. Now...I love her. She really is my Mom. My biological mother...Lily’s given me more in the 2 ½ years that I’ve lived with her than my biological mother has ever given me in over 12 years.”

“So why do you still call her Lily?”

“Actually, I call her Mom most of the time. Or Mommy if she’s feeling bad, because she likes it.”

“Your dad says I’m going home with you,” Dean’s voice was barely above a whisper.

“Yeah. Yeah, that’s the plan, as long as you’re cool with it.”

“I don’t have a better idea. I just…” Dean didn’t finish his thought but he didn’t need to. Roman knew exactly how he felt.

“Look, I know you’re in that place right now where you want everything to be okay, but at the same time you don’t because then it’s just going to hurt worse when it caves. But it WON’T cave, Dean. Not this time. Not with them. Just...just trust me.”

 

____________________

 

Trust him. Dean trusted Roman; that was the easy part. And he trusted Tony, even if that took a little more of him to get there. And really, it wasn’t that he didn’t want to trust Lily; she seemed cool enough. But...his own mother. His own MOTHER. She gave a man who already hurt him plenty permission to do things to him that left him feeling beyond empty. The nurse in the ER had examined him down there, confirmed that he had in fact been assaulted. There were probing fingers and flashes from a camera and just...more than Dean could really wrap his head around. So he opted instead for pretending it hadn’t happened.
The pain made that difficult, though. Even now 2 days later, every time he moved it felt like someone sliced up his belly with a knife. Walking was awful and going to the bathroom was sheer hell.

Add that to the additional damage inflicted on him the night before...Dean decided he loved morphine, or whatever it was the doctors had given him for the pain. Unfortunately they’d capped it off with a shot of something for anxiety, and THAT had been awful. It had done the exact opposite of the job it was meant to do, causing him to shake for hours and see things that weren’t even there. Tony had been really kind to him. He’d moved a chair into the corner of the room, so Dean could see him but so he wasn’t too close, and he’d sat there and spoken to Dean softly for hours straight until finally the meds wore off and Dean, exhausted, fell asleep.

Now, here, lying in bed talking to Roman, Dean felt the most relaxed he felt in...maybe ever, but for sure in years. Lily had brought him back his applesauce and a few crackers, and they’d tasted incredible. He was okay with her being there as long as Roman stayed close by, so she softly asked him questions about what foods he liked, his favorite movies, school, sports---virtually everything except the parts he obviously didn’t want to talk about. Unfortunately, the pain began to come back. He sucked in a sharp breath, and Lily paused.

“Does it hurt, sweetheart?” She crooned. He just nodded and tried to curl up tighter. Lily reached out to touch Dean’s shoulder but when he cringed, she drew her hand away.

“It’s all right, love,” she murmured. “It’s okay. I’m not going to hurt you. I’m not going to let anyone hurt you.” And Dean allowed her to rub his arm. “Where does it hurt, sweetie?”

“My...my um...it…” he was suddenly too embarrassed to say that his butt hurt. Of course, that wasn’t the only thing that hurt, but that was what hurt the most right then. So he settled for a half-truth.

“My arm,” he finally managed to whimper. His arm DID ache. Tony had told him he would have surgery the next day, and then after that was finished he would be released.

“Okay, sweets,” Lily’s voice was soothing and calm. “I’ll see what we can get for you.”

The second Lily left the room, Roman called Dean out.

“What’s the problem, really?”

“My ass; it fucking HURTS, but how am I supposed to tell HER that?”

“Dean, dude, you gotta tell her the truth. She can’t help you if you don’t.” Roman quietly scolded his friend, then Lily reappeared with some pills and a cup of juice.

“Here you go, Dean. Try these.”

Dean took the pills and laid back, trying to relax again. Eventually the pain let up. He began to feel quite sleepy, actually. Wondering what she’d given him, he rolled to the side and sighed deeply. This time when he felt Lily’s hand on him he just flinched a little before relaxing against her touch.

“There. That’s better, huh? It’s okay; you can rest. Try and sleep, Dean. I have to go soon but Roman will be here and Tony will be back before you know it. Just rest, sweetie.”

Dean’s eyes closed. He fell asleep to the lull of Lily’s soft voice and her hand softly rubbing his back.

Chapter Text

Lily looked lovingly at the small curled form of the child sleeping next to her. Eleven years old and already forced to grow up way more than most adult men. It still infuriated her; the idea of a man raping Dean, getting his kicks from a little boy. She wondered if there had been other times. Dean’s mother sounded like a real peach. Sometimes, she just hated humanity and it didn’t seem fair that here she and Tony, good people, were never able to conceive a child, while mothers like Dean’s and Roman’s were allowed to have precious children that they, in turn, made miserable. She usually tried to remind herself that if it HADN’T been for someone like that, she wouldn’t have her Roman. But once in awhile, she still struggled with it.

Lily believed in God, and she had been raised absentee Catholic, so she wasn’t really a churchgoer, but she figured she didn’t need to be in order to pray, to worship, and to be very thankful. So she did. She thanked God every day for the gift that was Roman. She thanked God that Roman was turning into a well-mannered, handsome, gentle young man who genuinely cared for others and who knew right from wrong. And while she liked to think that she and Tony deserved maybe part of the credit for that, she knew most of it belonged to Roman. If anyone had had the right to tell the world to f-off, it’d been Roman. Instead he’d chosen trust and love, he’d let them in, and he’d made them the family they desperately wanted. They knew they would probably never be able to adopt him legally, but they didn’t care. He was theirs, that was what mattered.

Her mind drifted back to Dean, though. Dean, who flinched under her touch, who winced away from her, who had no real desire to place any trust in her since mothers had obviously not worked out in his favor in the past. No matter how much she loved Roman, and she did, more than the world itself, she knew she had enough room in her heart for Dean too, and now he needed love and trust and guidance just as Roman had...so maybe…

Lily shook that thought off; it was way too early to even be thinking about making Dean a long-term foster. For all she knew, some grandparent was being contacted or something, even though in her heart she knew better. No one was going to come forward for him. If someone could, she knew odds were that they would have already, before it had gotten to this point.

She tried to focus on the anesthetized person lying on her operating table, on tightening the loosened tendons in the man’s elbow, but her mind kept wandering just a little. Finally, finally, she finished, relieved that she hadn’t messed anything up. Lily normally absolutely loved her job. She loved working closely with people, she loved fixing things that wouldn’t heal on their own otherwise, and she loved giving people their livelihoods back. Right now though, she just wanted to get back to her boys. To Tony and Roman, and to see how Dean was fairing. She spoke with her patient’s family, let them know the operation had been successful and what to expect during recovery, then went to the locker room and put her street clothes back on and went back up to the 11th floor.

Lily could hear the commotion in Dean’s room long before she arrived at the door. She ran the last 100 feet.

The sight that met her eyes made her heart sink. Dean was curled up on his bed, screaming, crying, obviously terrified. Tony was trying to talk him down, and two nurses were holding on to him. Roman was backed into a corner, arms wrapped around his knees, hands over his ears, and tears streaming down his face.

“What in HELL is going on in here?” Lily demanded sharply. Everyone in the room froze except poor Dean, who obviously sensed her presence and began to panic even more. Roman scrambled to his feet.

“Mommy! Mommy help him!” Lily guided him to one of the chairs and commanded him to sit down and stay there. She knew her voice was sharp, but she needed him to know she was serious.

“You two, LET GO OF HIM.” Another command, at the nurses this time, who knew Dr. G well and didn’t dare defy her, in spite of their orders from the pediatrician. Lily approached Dean’s bed. The room was silent now except for his screams and cries. She turned to Tony.

“What happened to him?”

“He slept for awhile and then the police came to question him---they couldn’t last night; he was too out of it---and he started having a panic attack while they were talking to him,” Tony’s voice was soft; Lily knew that he’d been trying to calm Dean for awhile.

“Okay, and that’s how he got like this?”

“No, he got like this because he was given some medicine to calm him down and just like last night, it clearly isn’t agreeing with him.”

“Clearly,” Lily muttered, irritated. How hard was it to read a chart?

“Did you approve it?” She asked Tony. She tried to keep the accusatory tone from her voice, but it was hard when all she wanted right now was to know who she needed to kill.

“I approved. They didn’t think this would happen again…” Tony trailed off. Lily sighed. Dean continued to sob and writhe, and occasionally squeal beside them.

“Take Roman and get something to eat,” Lily said quietly.

“I’m not sure I should---” he began.

“Anthony.” There was a venomous quality to her voice, indicating that this discussion was now closed. She turned then and focused her attention on Dean.

“What’s happening, sweetie?” She cooed. A huge sob escaped his throat.

“Monsters. There are monsters. They’re big and scaly with long necks and fangs. They’re going to eat me because my mother told them that...that I’ve been bad.” The last word came out as a wail.

“You see monsters, sweetness?” Lily moved slowly, retrieving a washcloth from the sink and wetting it.

“Don’t tell me they aren’t here. They’re here. I see them. I see them. They’re going to eat me as soon as you leave me alone. I don’t want to be alone. I’m always alone.”

“I know they’re here, Dean. I know.” She soothed him softly, indulging his fears. It would do her no good to be rational right now; Dean was hallucinating and there was nothing rational about that. Until it was over, no one was going to convince him that the monsters, his mother and her boyfriend, were gone for good.

“You do?” Even in Dean’s compromised state, he sounded confused, as though he’d been prepared for Lily to argue with him.

“I do. I can’t see them because they’re your monsters, sweetie. But I know they’re here. I can’t make them go away; you’re the only one who can and you’re not strong enough yet, and that’s okay, Dean. But I’m not going to leave you and as long as I’m here, they can’t hurt you.” She reached out to soak his sweat and tear stained face in the cool water. Dean cried out but didn’t move. His eyes were wild, pupils huge, but he was listening; she could tell.

“How many monsters, sweetness?”

“T-two,” Dean stammered. “Two enormous monsters. They look like dragons with no wings. They want to hurt me. They want to punish me for being a bad boy.”

“You haven’t been a bad boy. You’ve been a very, very good, sweet boy. It isn’t your fault, Dean. It isn’t your fault your mother sent monsters after you. You’re not bad, sweetheart. You’ve never been bad. They can’t hurt you,” Lily repeated, her voice still soft and even. “No one can hurt you anymore, sweetie. I’m going to keep you safe.”

“Keep me safe?” Dean whimpered. “No one can keep me safe...they’ll get me again. They always get me again.”

“Not anymore, Dean,” Lily continued to soothe, running her fingers through his sweat-damp hair. He allowed the contact. “Not while I’m here. As long as I’m here you’re safe, and I’m not going anywhere until you’re strong enough to fight on your own.” Her fingers trailed down Dean’s neck, until she was calmly rubbing circles on his back.

“You---you can stop them?” Dean’s voice was nothing more than a whisper now, the sobs reduced to sniffles. Lily bathed his face again with the cool cloth, then offered him a few sips of water.

“I can. I will. Wanna know how?”

“H-how?” He whispered.

Lily kicked her shoes off and crawled into Dean’s hospital bed beside him. She waited a moment, and when he didn’t protest, she laid down and wrapped her arms around him, careful not to jar his wrist. Even in his heightened, terrified state, Dean wrapped his arm around her. She gently cupped the back of his head and pulled his face closer so she was shielding him from the light in the room.

“You’re going to close your eyes so you can’t see them anymore. And you’re going to rest your head right here with me and I’m going to hold on to you. Just until you’re feeling stronger; strong enough to look those monsters in the eye and tell them that you’re done with them, so they have to leave. I’m going to stay right here, Dean, and as long as you’re in my arms, no monster can get you.”

“I’m not strong,” Dean whispered sadly against her.

“Not right now,” Lily agreed. “Your body and mind need to heal. That’s okay, sweetie. I can be strong enough for both of us right now.” Dean had completely stopped crying at this point, his exhausted body limp beside her.

“Just don’t let them hurt me,” he whimpered.

“I promise, Dean. They’re never going to hurt you ever again. It’s over, sweetie. It’s over and they are never ever going to harm you again.”

When Roman and Tony returned from the hospital cafeteria, Lily was laying next to Dean, cradling his body against her. He was sound asleep. Tony went straight to Lily and kissed her on the cheek.

“You,” he stated, “are amazing.”

She smiled, then looked at Roman.

“Hey, kiddo. D’you eat?”

Roman just nodded. He was happy that Dean wasn’t terrified anymore, but he still was upset about everything that had just happened.

“You okay, Ro?” His mom’s voice cut through his thoughts.

“Yeah. Yeah, just...scared me.” He didn’t need to say more; he knew his parents would understand. Lily gently disengaged herself from sleeping Dean, climbed to her feet, and led Roman to the recliner. She sat down and drew Roman into her arms and rocked him. Roman heaved a huge sigh. No matter how old he got, he didn’t think he’d ever tire of being loved and cuddled by his mother. For the first nine years of his life, he couldn’t recall ever being offered comfort when he was sick or scared or hurt. Lily liked to tell him that she was making up for it. So even though he was almost as tall as she was these days, the safety of her arms was still welcome.

“What happened? Tell me about it,” she murmured.

“He just...he was scared, you know? The cops made him answer all kinds of questions and it was upsetting him but they kept asking. And then he started to cry and shake, and Dad told them that was enough for right now. So they left but they said they’d be back later, even though Dad told him that Dean was probably going to need a few days before he could really discuss it. Then nurses came in and said he was in distress, so they had to give him something to calm him down. At first Dad said no. He said to give him time to settle down. We tried, Mama. We tried to talk to Dean. We tried holding his hand. But he couldn’t breathe so the nurse told Dad...she told him that they had to give Dean a shot so he’d sleep. Only it didn’t make him sleep. He was screaming and crying about monsters. He tried to hit me because he thought...he thought I was going to hurt him. Mom, I’d never hurt him…” Roman’s voice trailed off.

“Oh, baby. I know you wouldn’t. Dean knows that too. He probably didn’t realize it was you. Something about those medications just doesn’t agree with him at all.” She looked over at his dad. “T---how long ago did this start?”

“I think they medicated him around...1:00.” Lily glanced at the clock on the wall.

“So he’ll be waking up soon and it’ll have worn off...I think we can safely say that from now on, no anxiety meds. If I can calm him down while he’s under the effects of those meds, then we should be able to calm him down without making everything worse. Ro,” Roman craned his neck so that he could look his mother in the eyes.

“Dad and I are so proud of you, Roman,” Lily told him softly.

“Why? I didn’t do anything,” Roman replied.

He felt Lily’s embrace tighten. Tony got up from Dean’s side and pulled the chair over to Lily and Roman. He reached out a hand and rested on his son’s shoulder.

“Roman, you’ve done so much. You found a way to help Dean, you’ve stayed by his side when he’s needed you the most---you’re going to make a fantastic big brother.”

Roman blushed; he didn’t think he’d done anything out of the ordinary, but it felt good to hear his parents’ praise anyway. He rested his head against Lily’s shoulder, relaxing into her as Tony rubbed his arm. He was on the verge of dozing off when they all heard a tired voice croak from the bed,

“Hey, I hate to break up this party but...I really gotta pee.”

Dean was awake. And he was almost smiling.

 

________________________

 

Tony sat in the operating room waiting area with Lily to his right and Roman to his left. Dean had gone back just about 45 minutes ago, but the procedure wasn’t supposed to take more than an hour and a half. He thought back to the night before. After Dean had woken up, they’d gotten him some dinner; he’d claimed he was starving, so they’d helped him choose something from the hospital menu. He’d then picked at it. Around 8:30, Tony had suggested that Lily take Roman home. Roman had put up a pretty good fuss, but Lily had taken him by the arm and guided him out anyway, reminding him that they needed to get a bedroom ready for Dean. He’d finally gone with her reluctantly.

Dean had a pretty good night. The nurse had given him more pain meds at about 11, and they’d let him drink a smoothie, knowing he’d have to cut off all food and drinks by midnight. His sleep had been decent. He’d cried out a few times, but Tony had held his hand and rubbed his arm, and whatever had plagued him had always gone away. Then he woke up at ten after 5, and no amount of soothing had helped him go back to sleep. So instead Tony had laid beside Dean in his hospital bed and they had just talked. Tony had learned that while Dean liked sports (he was a Bengals fan; who knew they even existed anymore?), what he really wanted was to ride dirt bikes and climb mountains. An extremist, Tony, had thought. He liked that. Not that Roman wasn’t adventurous but he loved football and that was the extracurricular activity he’d chosen to devote himself to.

Tony also learned a few things that made him sad and sharply reminded him of Roman in the beginning. For example, no one had ever taken Dean fishing, or played catch with him, or gently rough-housed with him on soft carpet. Dean had never left Houston. He hadn’t been fed enough. In fact, he’d often had food withheld as punishment for some likely imagined misbehavior. Dean had asked Tony why, when Roman had become benevolent over having to go home, had neither of his parents “popped him upside the head” for it. Tony’s response seemed to have taken Dean by surprise.

“We don’t hit Roman, Dean. Ever. No matter what he does. No one ever deserves to be touched out of anger.”

Dean had sighed and then whispered,

“Well, he’s lucky. I hope he knows it.”

And Tony had quietly replied,

“I know you’ve been raised differently. So had he until he came to us. But that ends now, Dean. We don’t hit Roman, and we aren’t going to hit you. That’s not to say your behavior will never have consequences. But really, what have you ever learned from being beaten besides not to trust adults? I grew up in the 60’s and my parents were far from abusive, but I clearly recall getting a belt taken to my ass when I’d done something wrong and not clearly understanding exactly what I’d done. And I vowed a long time ago that I was never going to raise my own children that way. I loved my parents very much, still do, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t just a little afraid of them. I don’t ever want Roman to be afraid of me. You either.”

Now, sitting there with Roman and Lily, Tony was aware of how much he loved Dean already. His desire to protect him was every bit as strong as his desire to keep Roman safe. And regardless of the nurses, the orthopedic pediatric surgeon, and even his own wife reassuring him that this was a simple procedure, he just wanted to take his boys home. Both of them. He was ready to teach Dean how to be a kid.

The doctor appeared in the doorway and both Lily and Tony jumped to their feet, then relaxed when he broke out into a broad smile.

“Dean did great,” Ed Calhoun said. Ed was a friend, a colleague of Lily’s. Tony wasn’t at all perplexed when she hugged him.

“Thank you. Thank you so much. Ed, this is our son Roman,” Lily motioned for Roman to stand, and he obediently got up and shook Ed’s hand.

“Nice to meet you, Roman. You’re the big brother now huh?”

“I guess,” Roman looked at his shoes, and Lily and Tony exchanged glances; by now, they both knew that meant that something was bothering their son. Tony figured that a new brother was probably a lot to take in. He wondered if Roman was feeling a little jealous. Tony wrapped his arm around him and pulled him back down into the chairs, while Ed and Lily discussed the operation.

“You okay?” Tony whispered into Roman’s ear. Roman shrugged.

“I’m just...Dad, I want to get Dean and go home,” Roman whispered. Tony hugged him.

“I know. Me too, buddy. Me too. He’s got to rest here for a few hours, and then we’ll all go home and stay there all weekend and hang out. How’s that sound?”

Roman just shrugged again.

“You sure that’s all, bud? Because you know you can tell Mom and me absolutely anything right? No matter what it is?”

“Even if it’s really mean and stupid?” Roman muttered, so softly Tony had to strain to hear him.

“Even then. Lu?” Tony turned to Lily. “Roman and I are going to walk down to the cafeteria to get some coffee and maybe a muffin. You want anything?”

“A banana muffin and a Mt. Dew the size of my face,” Tony couldn’t help noticing how tired his wife looked. He wondered if she’d slept much the night before.

“Okay,” Tony hooked an arm around Roman’s shoulders and guided him from the room. As soon as they were in the cafeteria, Tony ordered a coffee and a strawberry kiwi smoothie and a couple of muffins and he and Roman sat down facing each other.

“Okay. I’m here. Spill it.” Tony took Roman’s hands.

“I don’t know, I guess...I guess I just...I’m scared, Dad,” Roman whispered. “It’s really dumb and I feel guilty about it because God, after Dean...after they...no one deserves a family who’ll care about him more than he does.”

“But you’re afraid that means said family is going to care less about you.” It wasn’t a question. Roman nodded miserably.

“Does that make me a horrible person?” He whispered. Tony squeezed his hands.

“Of course not. A horrible person is the one who put Dean in this position in the first place. Roman, I think this is a little like when we first brought you home. Do you remember what that was like? How you felt then?”

Roman nodded.

“Well, it’s kind of like that again. No matter how many times we told you that you could trust us, you had to learn it on your own. But eventually you did, right?”

“Yes. I did,” Roman replied.

“So this is like that. Mama and I can tell you over and over again that no matter what happens, even if we take in 10 more children, we’re not going to love you even a tiny bit less. But that’s something you’re probably going to have to learn for yourself. And that’s okay. It’s okay to be afraid, buddy. To be honest, I’m kind of scared too. Just like I was scared when I first brought YOU home.”

“You? I didn’t think you were scared of anything.”

“Roman, I’m scared of all kinds of things. Back then, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to give you what you needed to make you happy and to make you feel safe. Now I’m a little afraid I won’t be able to provide that for Dean. And on Wednesday when I landed in Houston, I was flat out TERRIFIED. Five calls from the community center? I was sure something awful had happened to you and no one had been able to get ahold of your mom. Then when I ran into the office and saw you sitting there---Jesus, I was so damn relieved, I just wanted to squeeze you until your eyes bugged out.”

Roman laughed a little.

“Well, I was really happy to see you but I’m glad you didn’t squeeze my eyeballs out. And really, Dad, 10 more kids? Can you wait to make sure you can handle me and Dean first?”

Tony laughed too.

“I promise,” he said. “Come on. Let’s take Mom her soda. Roman?”

“Yeah?”

“I love you, son.”

Roman smiled as he stood up.

“I love you too, Dad.”

When they returned to the waiting room, Lily was pretending to read a magazine. Tony knew she was pretending because her eyes were looking out over the top of it, rather than AT it. She sprang to her feet when she saw them.

“Everything okay?” She asked them cautiously.

Tony gazed at Roman for a moment, then turned to Lily and kissed her.

“Everything will be. Everything will be just amazing.” He grinned at her and she grinned back.

Then a nurse appeared in the doorway.

“Excuse me---are you Dean Ambrose’s mother?” The nurse looked at Lily expectantly.

“I’m his foster mother, yes,” Lily replied.

“Well, you need to come with me,” the nurse said. “Dean is awake, and he’s asking for his mother.”

 

____________________

 

“He’s in here,” the nurse instructed, leading Lily into a small recovery room. Lily cringed when she saw him.

Dean was semi-upright in the hospital bed, leaning back against some pillows. His wrist was elevated and wrapped in bandages. His eyes were squeezed shut, but Lily could see that he was crying silently.

“No...Mama. Mama, no, no,” he whimpered through his tears.

It was then that Lily realized that Dean had NOT been calling for her.

“She isn’t here, Dean,” Lily kept her voice even and calm, trying to soothe him.

“L-Lily?” Dean’s eyes flew open and he choked on her name just a little.

“Shhhh...yes, sweetie. It’s me. Just me. She’s not here, baby. Just me,” Lily murmured, noting with a pang the fresh tears that leaked from the boy’s eyes.

“Hey...you’re okay, Dean. I know you’re kind of out of it. But you’re okay. Just rest. Rest, rest, so I can take you home, sweetheart. Everything is going to be okay,” she crooned. It seemed to work. Dean stopped crying and relaxed.

“Does it hurt at all?” Lily whispered.

“No, I...I can’t feel anything,” Dean answered thickly.

“Good. That’s how it needs to be for awhile. You did good though, sweetie. The doctor said you did so good, and now it’s over and all that’s left to do is get better. In three weeks the pins will come out, and then you’ll be in a cast for 8 weeks, and then it’ll be good as new, Dean. And we’re going to help you. Tony and Roman are waiting to see you, love.”

Noting that Dean was calm now, Lily took his unbandaged hand and held it, but she stopped talking. He wasn’t asleep; every so often he’d open his blue eyes and stare at her. It wasn’t in an uncomfortable way though. Neither of them spoke for the longest time, until a nurse came in and said they were ready to move Dean back to his room. They wanted to observe him for a few more hours, she said, and then the Girardi’s would be free to take him home. Lily held his hand the whole way, and was thrilled to see Tony and Roman already waiting there.

“Dean!” Roman jumped up and hopped to his new foster brother’s side. Dean had opened his eyes and his lips spread into the biggest, dopiest grin Lily had ever seen. Then Tony had pulled up a chair and pulled Roman onto his lap and Dean’s smile had grown wider. Lily sighed. Even after all the time she’d spent convincing herself that they were doing the right thing for everyone involved, she’d still had her petty doubts---until that very moment. Right then, staring at her boys, she felt whole. She felt complete. She knew she was never going to let any of them go.

Chapter Text

“Mom, LET GO!” Dean stubbornly pulled the hairbrush out of her hand. “I’m a big kid. I can comb my own hair!” Then he tried to to brush the gnarled, tangled mess before heaving a huge sigh and handing the brush back to Lily.

“Nevermind. YOU do it. Just don’t pull. And I’m still a big kid. And I can STILL comb my own hair.”

Lily laughed gently.

“You know, sweetie, if you’d use the conditioner I bought you and comb through it when it’s wet---” Dean grunted an interruption and wiggled away from her, the look of indignation on his face too much for his mom and Roman, who both burst into giggles.

It hadn’t taken long in his foster home for Dean’s feisty side to emerge, but it had come out with a vengeance. Luckily his foster parents seemed to relish it, and they seemed to relish him. The first week or so had been miserable, sure. Dean had been frightened, confused, and in a great deal of pain. There had been long tear-filled nights, full of nightmares about Dean-eating monsters, beatings, and forced sexual attention, but he was never, ever made to endure it alone. Someone was always with him to gently talk to him and soothe him. One night he’d screamed so hard that Tony had scooped him up and they’d carried him to the living room so he wouldn’t wake Roman. Lily had rocked him in a big comfy chair until he’d slept. Dean couldn’t remember his biological mother ever treating him so tenderly, as though he mattered. At first, he’d gotten up at night and stolen food and hidden it, but about the fourth time he got discovered when he’d accidentally tripped the alarm. The punishment he expected never came. They’d had a long talk about how being part of a family meant always having enough to eat, and he was welcome to anything he wanted, but not in the middle of the night, and could he please stop hiding ham sandwiches under his pillow?

There had been even longer angry, agonizing days. He had to start working through his anger and hatred of his mother, and that was hard. But once his body had begun to solidly heal, everything had gotten remarkably easier and more comfortable. Dean had had to learn how to be part of a real family though. There was no screaming allowed; he was expected to talk about why he was angry or afraid. He was expected to treat Roman like a brother (that part was easy). At first it was the hardest thing Dean had ever done. He wasn’t used to people really caring about his needs, making sure he was taken care of. Making sure he was clean, fed, and rested. They insisted he go to bed at a reasonable time, and he balked. They cooked healthy food, and he acted like he didn’t want it. Every time he messed up he nearly came unhinged, waiting for the fallout. Lily and Tony had reassured him over and over that it wasn’t his fault; he’d just never been part of a real family before. They were right about that, actually.

But if this was a real family, Dean had truly been missing out those first 11 years.

Nobody hit him. Nobody cursed at him, called him names, shunned him, or bemoaned his very existence. He was CERTAINLY safe from ever being touched in a way that was not okay; there was never any shortage of hugs, kisses, and ‘I love yous’ to be had, for him OR for Roman. And none of it was bullshit either; they meant it. Their patience paid off when he rewarded them by calling them Mom and Dad a mere three weeks after coming home. Nevermind that he’d been at the hospital having his pins removed and he was terrified, so he’d begged Lily to come in with him, and one flash of her credentials made it happen. She had held his good hand, kept her hand on his cheek, and talked him through the entire procedure. When it had been over and the pain had started back, Tony had picked him up and held him tight while Lily gave him pain meds, and then Tony had wrapped his other arm around Roman, til he was holding them both, and they had watched old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reruns for hours. Those actions were Mom and Dad enough for Dean.

And then, there was Roman. Roman, who had stayed close to Dean’s side for weeks. Roman, who’d reassured him that 6th grade at Creek Ridge Middle School was going to be a ton of fun. Roman, who had sat and listened to Dean sob out his frustration when he finally admitted that it was a struggle to get through each school day because he could barely read. Roman, who’d saved him the humiliation of admitting it to their parents by telling them himself. And it was Roman who tirelessly worked with him every day after finishing his own homework.

It’d been about three months since the surgery; it was nearly Halloween now. They didn’t have actual seasons in Texas, but the weather was beginning to cool and he and Roman and Tony were spending a lot more time outdoors in the evenings and on the weekends, and often, Lily would join them, sometimes on a horse. Dean’s cast had only been off about two weeks when Roman sat him down one day and asked him if he’d given any thought to Halloween.

Dean stared at his brother blankly.

“Wait---you DO know what Halloween is right?” Roman asked.

“Of course; I’m not a dumbass,” Dean replied (while looking around to make sure their mother wasn’t nearby; she didn’t really mind if he swore at home but it was always good for a lecture on how it needed to STAY at home). “I’ve just never done it before.”

Roman’s eyebrow raised, then lowered.

“Yeah---until I lived here, I don’t think I ever had either. But you may as well get used to it. Mom and Dad are crazy into holidays, and there are a bunch of them coming up. Plus your birthday.” Dean swore again; he wished Roman hadn’t brought that up.

“Are they gonna make a big deal over my birthday?” He asked.

“Probably. They make a big deal over mine. And they made a HUGE deal over Mom’s last one, but I think that’s because she turned 40.”

“Wait, Mom is 40? Says who?” Dean was incredulous.

“I mean it never occurred to me to ask her to prove it, Dean, but I’m pretty sure she’s got a birth certificate or something somewhere. And who would lie about THAT?”

Dean couldn’t believe it. Their mother was OLD. Who knew?

The subject of Halloween came up again a few days later, and that’s when he and Roman decided to be zombies. Dean was beginning to get excited. He’d never dressed in costume in his life. On Halloween night, Lily worked on their makeup. Roman went first, and Dean was shocked at how real it looked.

“Where did you learn to do THAT?” He asked.

“I did theater in college. I worked at the same community center that you two hang out at now when I was there, and I did drama a lot. In fact, that’s how I met Daddy. Now hold still, Dean, or this isn’t going to come out right.”

“I’m a zombie; how right is it supposed to be?” Dean protested but he sat still for the remainder of the application anyway.

It had been so much fun. Unfortunately, two mornings later, Dean had been working in his science lab, trying (and failing) to make the chemicals he was mixing coagulate, when a sharp pain radiated through his right ear. At first he ignored it but by the time the bus dropped him and Roman off at the community center, the dull throbbing was driving him insane. He opted to sit and watch the basketball game instead.

Once home, it just got worse. He asked his mother for some Tylenol (Tony was in Washington and was of no help to Dean), but didn’t feel like subjecting himself to her fussing at the moment, so he said he had a headache. She gave him a funny look but got him the Tylenol anyway. They didn’t help.

That night, Dean’s ear throbbed like a hammer clanking away at an anvil. Every so often he whimpered out, knowing damn well Lily would come if he called her, but not wanting to ask. Hoping she would somehow hear his mewls of misery. It didn’t work. He’d known it wouldn’t. With a sigh, he laid back on his pillow. Then he got up, grabbed his pillow and blanket, and crept into Roman’s room.

“Rome?” No answer, just soft snores and the jangle of Honey Badger’s tags as she looked at him. Dean shook Roman’s shoulder.

“Rome? Are you asleep?”

“Yep,” came a tired, grumpy reply.

“Oh good, you’re up. Roman, my ear hurts. I think something’s wrong with it. Actually I think I’m probably dying.”

“So go tell Mom,” Roman grunted, rolled over, and started to fall asleep again.

“No, I can’t, because Mom is asleep and I shouldn’t really wake her up should I? And anyway, why do the dogs only sleep with you?”

Roman was awake now.

“You mean to tell me that you can’t wake Mom up, but shaking me awake in the middle of the night is completely acceptable?”

“Uh huh,” Dean mumbled.

“Nice. And by the way, the dogs sleep with me because YOU sleep like you’re wrestling a great white shark.

Dean pretended to pout. Then, because Roman was not giving in, he decided whining was in order.

“But Roommmmeee...it hurrrrtttttttssssssssss. Can I sleep with you?”

“Can you remember that I am NOT a shark?”

“Yup!”

Roman lifted the covers and Dean happily hopped into his bed next to him.

“Now get comfy and go to sleep,” Roman commanded. Dean rooted around, looking for a cozy spot. It took him awhile to get it just right.

“Shark, Dean. Shark,” Roman had warned, but Dean had found the sweet spot by then. He couldn’t go to sleep though.

“Roman?”

“Mmmmm?”

“You wouldn’t be a shark anyway. You’d be a T-Rex. I’m pretty sure that’s what you’d be. A big, scary T-Rex who nobody messed with, so you’d keep the rest of us safe---”

“I’m pretty sure the T-Rex ATE the other dinosaurs, Dean. Now hush.”

“No, I know. But you wouldn’t be like the other T-Rexes. You’d be the one who protected me. Just like now.”

“You’re gonna need protecting FROM me if you don’t go to sleep.” Roman was bluffing. Dean knew that. But he fell silent anyway, and eventually he went to sleep.

Lily found them in Roman’s bed the next morning, Dean spooning his brother.

“He’s got an earache,” Roman shrugged when she questioned. Lily swooped in and felt Dean’s forehead.

“Fever. No school for you. What hurts, baby?”

“He already told you. My ear,” Dean whined miserably.

“All right. Go change. You’re going to have to spend the morning in my office. I’ll see if I can get you in with Dr. Enderle.”

After dropping Roman off, they went on to Lily’s office. This was perfectly okay with Dean. It was big and had an enormous beanbag bed in the corner on the floor. Dean collapsed into it and waited to die. Instead, a couple of hours later, Lily came in and took him to the doctor, where he was diagnosed with a double ear infection (weird, since only one of them had hurt), given a steroid shot in the butt, and sent home with a prescription for antibiotics. They stopped at Walgreens. Lily let him pick out all the Gatorade he wanted.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do with you tomorrow,” Lily said while they waited. “I have two surgeries. I suppose I’ll have to bring you to my office again.”

“Or you could just leave me home alone!” Dean suggested. Lily looked him over.

“No, Dean. No, I can not just leave you home alone.” Dean pouted but didn’t argue.

They went to New York for Thanksgiving that year, and it was then that the dreaded subject of his birthday came up again. Tony’s father, who insisted they call him Papa Angelo, had sat Dean down.

“Now, I understand you’ve got a birthday pretty soon.” He’d stated.

Dean had ducked his head and blushed a little.

“Oh. I...yeah. I guess.” He had stammered.

“Well, Nonna and I are sad that we can’t spend it with you, but here’s a little something from us to you. Make sure to think of us when you spend it.” And he’d pressed a crisp $100 bill into Dean’s hand.

Dean was stunned. No one had ever given him money before. Not for anything, but certainly not for the simple act of being born. He turned the bill over and over in his hands, staring at it, until Tony had gently elbowed him and muttered, “manners.”

Dean had snapped himself out of it. He hugged Papa Angelo and thanked him profusely, then scampered off to thank Nonna and to show Roman. But he heard them speak as he slipped away.

“Dean is a good boy, yes?” Papa had asked.

“Dean is an amazing boy,” Lily had responded. Dean’s heart swelled.

For his 12th birthday, they have him his very own dirt bike.

They’d sent him on a scavenger hunt throughout the house, finding a gift and a clue in each spot. Knee pads. Elbow pads. An empty gas can. And then he’d ventured into the garage---and there she was.

Black and chrome, with a big blue bow tied around it.

Dean fell to his knees and wept.

After scaring his parents, who picked him up and hugged him and kissed him and hugged him some more, he managed to blubber out that no one had ever given him a birthday gift before, nevermind such a gorgeous, incredible one.

“Well, you can thank us by not mortally wounding yourself, huh?” Lily said. She looked nervous. Dean grinned.

“I’ll try, but if this thing does wheelies it’s in God’s hands.”

 

__________________________________________

 

Roman loved having a younger brother. Okay, he was only about 6 months younger. But due to Roman’s May birthday and Dean’s December birthday, they were a year apart in school, and that counted for something too right?

Of course, Dean could be pesky and annoying. Incessantly annoying. But Roman soon learned he could give it as well as he could get it. They’d banter back and forth, and occasionally get into a tussle that would prompt Lily to say something to calm them down, or send them outside where they could do no real damage to the house. They didn’t mind though. They loved to be outdoors.

As Roman’s 7th grade year came to a close, he also turned 13. To celebrate, his parents allowed him to invite three friends, and Dean of course, to go spend the long Memorial Day weekend at the coast. The ocean water was really too cold for swimming but they’d done it anyway because they were young and dumb. But when they’d returned, Tony had built a bonfire right on the beach and they huddled around its warmth and made s’mores and talked and Roman had wished his birthday could come all the time.

When 8th grade began, so did football. Eighth grade football was really important, because it was the final year at the middle school, and the highschool coaches would start coming around to get an idea of who might be trying out as freshmen. Between football and school and worrying about how Dean was doing in school (nevermind his parents’ constant reminders that Dean wasn’t his responsibility), Roman was stressed. So one Wednesday night when Dean came into his room and flopped onto his bed while he studied, Roman wasn’t at all happy to hear what he said next.

“I think Mama is pregnant,” Dean proclaimed with a sigh.

Roman laughed a little.

“Mom can’t get pregnant. Besides, why would she want a newborn when she’s got you to take after?”

“She has you too!” Dean cried indignantly. “Besides, I don’t know why she’d WANT a baby but I heard her talking to Dad and I think she’s having one. Maybe now that you’re 13 and I’m almost 13 she decided she wants a younger kid. Maybe we’ll both have to leave. Maybe---”

“Dean, just shut up a minute,” Roman interrupted. His history book forgotten, he turned in his chair to face his brother. “Now tell me exactly what you heard.”

“Okay. They were talking real quietly, like they do when they don’t want us to hear them. And I heard Dad say they had to be careful how they told us, ‘cause he wasn’t sure how we’d react. Then I just heard mumbling, but THEN I heard Mom say it was going to be hard for us to adjust to ‘him’. And then she said she hoped they could give ‘him’ what he needs. And THEN she said ‘he’s going to need so much at first; how are we going to provide it?’ Isn’t it obvious, Rome? We’re getting a new baby brother.”

Roman was beginning to feel alarmed. Dean definitely had a flare for the dramatic, but all of this DID sound like a new baby might be on the way. A new baby was the last thing they needed. Roman didn’t know much about babies, but he knew they cried and pooped and were just generally miserable little people. He tried not to panic, noticing the expectant look on Dean’s face. Dean wanted him to tell him everything would be okay.

“Look. I don’t know about this baby thing, but here’s what I DO know. Even IF Mom has a baby---and that’s a HUGE if---they won’t send us away. They love us. We’re theirs. And if they were going to send you away they’d have done it months ago, because you’re a huge pain in the ass.”

Dean feigned insult but grinned.

“Yeah...I guess you’re right. But I’m not changing any diapers. Can I sleep with you tonight?”

“Remember about the sharks?”
“Yes. Yes I do remember. Roman is not a shark.”

“Okay, then.”

The boys laid back on Roman’s bed. Dean seemed placated for now, but Roman wished he felt one tenth as confident as he’d sounded. They wouldn’t get rid of him. That much he knew. But a baby...a BABY? It was hard not to panic. Then he heard Dean’s voice beside him.

“Roman?”

“Yeah?”

“I’ve never ever held a baby,” Dean confessed.

“Me neither. Maybe we won’t have to.”

“Maybe. Rome?”

“What, Dean?”

“Do you think...do you...they won’t love the new baby MORE than us, right? Because it’ll be theirs…”

“Dean, I just told you, we ARE theirs. They love us. They’ve always loved us and they always will. No baby in the world will change that.” He didn’t tell Dean that he’d been wondering the exact same thing himself.

Chapter Text

Lily always checked on her boys before she went to bed, and she was startled to find Dean in Roman’s bed spooning him. She smiled softly down at them and her heart began to swell. This was perfect. They were perfect. They were probably about to get their world rocked a little, but she knew they could handle it. As she gently disengaged Dean’s arms from Roman’s waist and rolled him to his other side, she heard Roman mutter something. After tucking the blanket around Dean’s sleeping form she went around to Roman’s side of the bed.

She knelt down beside him and smoothed his hair back. He hadn’t tied it up like he normally did. It’d be hell to deal with in the morning but probably not worth waking him up to do it now. Then she realized his eyes were half open.

“Hey,” she whispered. Confusion flashed in Roman’s eyes before registering who was there talking to him.

“Hi,” he mumbled. Lily smoothed back his hair again. Neither boy seemed feverish and it wasn’t odd finding her youngest son in her oldest son’s bed. But it usually wasn’t without a reason, either. Although Dean trusted her and Tony, he was still far more likely to go to Roman first.

“Dean have a bad dream?” She murmured.

“Naw,” Roman was clearly struggling to stay awake.

“Okay. Do you want me to move him back to his bed?” Roman shook his head slightly, and his breathing grew heavy again. Lily stayed beside him for a few moments more, gently rubbing his back. As she stood, her son mumbled,

“Mama?” Then something that sounded strangely like, “I don’t want a baby brother.”

Lily knelt back down to hear if she’d heard him correctly, but he was already sound asleep again. So she leaned over and just whispered softly into his ear,

“I love you so much, Ro. I don’t want you to worry about anything. We’ll talk tomorrow.” Then she tucked the blanket around him, reached over and patted Dean’s back again, and stood up and left the room.

 

___________________________________

 

The next morning, Dean was grumpy. Roman looked tired. Dean hoped he hadn’t gone shark wrestling in his sleep. At breakfast, he stared his mother up and down. She didn’t LOOK pregnant. Her belly looked as flat as it always had, and she was wearing a tailored suit, hardly a potato sack. She offered him a plate of bacon and eggs, but he wasn’t too hungry, so when she wasn’t looking, he fed part of it to Gator.

Gator was never far from Dean, just as Honey Badger never strayed far from Roman. Dean always thought it was odd to have dogs named Honey Badger and Gator and cats named Froggy and Monkey, but he didn’t ask questions. Maybe what his parents really wanted was a zoo.

On the way to school, Dean stared out the window and tried not to snap Roman’s head off.

It was nearly impossible to concentrate. Even in chemistry, which was the only subject Dean actually liked, and that was only because every so often, the teacher blew things up. His school did have a shop class, but you had to be in 8th grade to take it and if one could believe it, Roman had absolutely no interest in cars. Or building, unless it was something they worked on with their dad. In the fall, all Roman cared about was football.

After school, he narrowly missed getting into a fight on the bus to the community center. His lunch had been nasty. He’d gotten griped at by his English teacher for falling asleep in class, like it was HIS fault he had no interest at all in Treasure Island. He was starving and growing more angry with his parents by the second. How dare they have a baby? He just wanted to go home and confront his mother. And then suddenly there she was. Dean looked at the clock. It was only 4:30. She was early. Roman wouldn’t even be out of practice yet.

“Why are you here already?” He grumped at her.

“Well, hello to you too,” she replied fondly, ruffling his hair. She hugged him, and he allowed it for a few seconds before trying to wiggle away from her, in case there were people watching. Dean actually really liked it when his parents hugged him, but only in the privacy of their own home. His mother never really cared; she and his dad were just huggers. They could barely keep their hands off of him, Roman, or each other. It was okay though. After 11 years of what he’d been through, he welcomed a touch that didn’t end in pain.

“I just meant you’re like really early,” Dean finally said. He tried to keep his crankiness at a minimum but he really wanted a redo for the day.

“Can’t I want some time alone with my baby?” Okay, so Dean also liked it when Lily called him her baby. He wondered how long that would last once he became...the middle child.

“I’m not a baby,” he whined.

“I know. But you and Roman are always going to be my babies,” she answered.

“No matter what?”

“No matter what.”

“Even if…” he stopped. As much as he wanted, no, needed, to know the truth, he didn’t want to have this conversation now.

“Even if…?” Lily prompted.

“Nothing. Never mind.”

“Want a smoothie?” She asked him. He nodded. When did he ever not want a smoothie?

Lily took him to Jamba Juice and bought him a smoothie and a pretzel, and bought herself something that looked icky and green. Weren’t pregnant women supposed to crave weird stuff? He couldn’t help stare at it. She noticed and laughed.

“It has kale in it. Want a taste?” Dean shook his head.

“Not a chance,” he answered. Lily reached out and took his hand.

“So...you slept with Roman last night. Is everything okay?” There it was. The real reason for this mother/son time. He glared at her.

“So is THAT why you came to get me early today?” She looked at him calmly.

“Dean, I already told you, I wanted to spend some time just us two. It was just a question. If you don’t want to talk about that, then you pick a topic.”

He didn’t want to talk about that.

“Is Dad getting Roman?” Dean asked instead.

“Yeah, he’s picking him up after practice is over.”

“Are we having anything good for dinner?” Are you replacing me? He screamed inside his head, but he managed to keep it in.

“Daddy’s grilling chicken and zucchini.”

Dean’s stomach growled. He hadn’t been hungry at breakfast, and since lunch had been so awful, he was still starving even though he’d just downed a smoothie and a pretzel.

“That sounds good. I like that.”

“Good, because that’s what’s on the table.” Lily smiled at him. “I love you, you know that, right?”

“Of course I know it. You tell me all the time. Mama?” A horrible thought had occurred to Dean, one way worse than a baby.

“Yes, sweetness?”

“Are you dying?” He waited to hear the answer. And was kind of pissed when his mother laughed.

“No, Dean. I am not dying. I mean sooner or later we all do, but I don’t intend to any time soon. Why?”

“No reason, I just...no reason.” Lily stood and motioned Dean to follow, then without any warning at all, engulfed him into a bear hug. He didn’t squirm away this time. The only people at Jamba Juice who might see were strange adults who wouldn’t care anyway.

“I’m getting the feeling that you’re worried I might leave you, Dean,” she whispered so that only he could hear her, then she placed her hands on his cheeks and pulled his face close to hers. “So I’m going to say this now, and I want you to take it very very seriously. I am not going anywhere. Daddy is not going anywhere. And you are not going anywhere. Okay? You have nothing to be afraid of, Dean, because I love you and I’m going to tell you what I told Roman once---you occupy a part of my heart that could never be filled by anyone else, ever. Do you understand me?”

Dean nodded, suddenly feeling warm and fuzzy. He returned her hug, resting his head on her shoulder and just enjoying being loved for a moment. Then he replied,

“I know. I know that. I love you too, Mama.”

Later on, at home over dinner, the bombshell was dropped. Lily and Tony had joined hands and looked at Dean and Roman.

“So...we have something to tell you boys,” Tony said. They both looked up, then looked at each other. Roman set down his silverware. Suddenly, Dean couldn’t remember a time when he’d been so scared.

“What is it?” Roman looked scared shitless too, but he was a lot better at hiding it than Dean, who basically wasn’t interested in beating around the bush anymore.

Lily cleared her throat.

“Well, we’ve been talking a lot and something has happened, something that doesn’t exactly effect you guys directly except it kind of does, because...this family is going to get a little bigger very soon."

Dean leaped to his feet, suddenly angry, and knocked over Roman’s milk.

“I KNEW IT!” He shouted. “I KNEW you were pregnant. How could you do this to us?”

Immediately, five things happened at once. Lily started to laugh. Tony choked on his iced tea. Lily got to her feet and grabbed a dish towel to start soaking up the milk, then whacked Tony on the back. He started coughing, Dean kept yelling, and the whole time, all Roman did was stare at his hands. Finally, Lily went around the table and pulled Dean into her arms.

“Shhh...shhh. Stop. Just stop. Okay?” Dean buried his face against her, trying to calm himself down. Tony cleared his throat.

“Is that what’s been bugging you two all day? You think Mom is pregnant?” Dean didn’t look up, just nodded against Lily, who was rubbing his back.

“Well, you don’t have to worry about that. I’m definitely not pregnant.”

Dean finally looked up.

“But I heard you talking. I heard you talking about how we were going to have a new brother. And you said you hoped you could take care of him too, and...and...but you’re not having a baby?”

Tony finally stood and pulled Roman out of his chair.

“No,” he said with finality. “Mom and I are NOT having a baby. Furthermore, I think dinner is over and we need to go to the living room. It’s obvious that the four of us need to have a talk.”

They sat around the living room together. Lily sat in the middle of the sofa with an arm round Roman and an arm around Dean, and Tony sat on the coffee table facing them.

“Okay, guys,” Tony spoke first. “Here’s what’s happening. First of all, no babies. At our age I’m not even sure we could handle a baby. It’s hard enough to keep up with you two big boys. So no. There will be no baby brother.” Tony took a deep breath.

“You are, however, going to have a new foster brother.”

Dean and Roman looked at each other, then back at Tony.

“What? Why?” Dean was curious now.

“Who? How come?” Roman seemed floored too.

Lily tightened her arms around them.

“There’s a group home in the city that has recently been closed. And the entire staff is under investigation. That’s because a group of the older boys who lived there have been repeatedly assaulting the younger, smaller boys. And the people who ran the place were aware, but they did nothing to put a stop to it.”

Dean spoke up.

“By assaulting, do you---what does that mean? For him, I mean.”

Tony spoke again, and his voice was serious.

“It means he’s been raped, guys. Quite a few times. In fact, right now he’s in the hospital because---” Tony paused, and Lily jumped in.

“He’s in rough shape physically,” she murmured. “He’s been abused for so long, and his body has a lot of healing to do, but he’s also...he’s pretty terrified right now.”

“I know about that,” Dean whispered.

“Yeah. We know you do, sweetie,” Lily’s hand found Dean’s hair and began stroking it softly. “He’s gonna need a lot of time, and a lot of patience. And it won’t be easy and that’s why we worry that we might not be able to give him what he needs to recover, but we’re going to try.”

“How old is he?” Dean wanted to know.

“He’ll turn 13 a few days after Roman turns 14,” Tony answered.

“So he’ll still be the baby,” Dean whispered.

“He’ll be the youngest. Not a baby, but yeah. You’ll get to see what being a big brother is like.”

“What if I can’t? What if I’m not a good big brother like Roman?”

“You’ll be great. I know you will.”

“Hang on. If he’s so messed up, how are you going to take care of him when you both work?” Roman piped up. He had barely spoken the entire time, and he didn’t sound too happy.

“Well, Mom’s going to take a leave of absence from work. I’ve got enough vacation time to cash in a couple of weeks now and still take you guys on all of the trips we promised you we’d take,” said Tony.

“And after that, I’m going part time,” Lily finished.

“So you’re going to basically quit your job for this kid?” Roman’s voice was quiet but it still sounded deadly.

“No, kiddo. I’m not quitting my job at all, and I’m not doing it for him. I’m doing it because I have two beautiful boys already who are in to football and Motocross and Lord knows what else, and I’m adding another to the mix, so I---” Roman interrupted her.

“Yeah, but you waited until you had three of us. So it’s not for Dean and I. It’s for him.”

“Roman,” there was a slight warning in Tony’s voice, but Roman didn’t stop.

“Dean and I aren’t enough for you, right? So you add another one and spend all your time with him...I’m not okay with this.”

Lily unwrapped Dean from her arm and attempted to hug Roman, but he jerked away. He stood up abruptly, knocking Lily into his brother. Tony leaped to his feet and pulled Roman into his arms, and although Roman struggled, Tony didn’t let go.

“Okay, buddy. Okay. I’m here. It’s time to stop. Come on.” Roman tried for another minute or so to fight him off, but then he went limp and allowed Tony to lead him from the room.

Lily sighed. She looked at Dean.

“Well. That went slightly better than I anticipated.” She kissed Dean’s forehead. “Are you okay with this, sweetness?”

“Yeah. I’m okay. Roman will be too. I know he will. Mama?”

“Yes?”

“What’s his name? Our brother?” Lily smiled at Dean.

“Seth,” she said softly. “His name is Seth.”

Dean considered this. Seth. Roman, Dean, and Seth. He decided he liked the sound of it.

Chapter Text

Tony was sitting up in bed, and Roman was laying with his head on Tony’s shoulder when Lily entered the bedroom. It had been awhile since either of them had spoken, but Tony knew they still needed to talk.

“Dean asleep?” He asked Lily.

“Yeah. I had to hug him, kiss him, cuddle him, read to him, and tuck him in properly, but he’s asleep. He’s really 12 right?” Tony laughed.

“Yeah. It’s been quite an evening though. Right, buddy?” Roman merely nodded. Lily climbed onto the bed and sat cross-legged beside him. His eyes were red and puffy. Lily took his hands in hers.

“I need you to tell me why you’re so angry,” she spoke to their son softly, and Tony patted Roman’s back. Roman was miserable, Tony knew. Lily continued.

“This isn’t like you, Ro,” her voice remained soft, and her eyes were gentle. “I know you’re hurting. Please talk to me.”

Tears formed in Roman’s eyes. His voice shook as he answered her.

“I’m sorry, Mom.” Tony felt his heart break, just a little. He hated seeing Roman like this.
“You need to tell your mom some of the stuff you’ve told me, buddy,” Tony rubbed Roman’s back. He could feel the tension in his shoulders, and he could feel Roman start to shake.

“Roman,” Lily’s voice didn’t waver. “I know. I know you’re---I know you didn’t mean it, kiddo. I know.” Roman’s tears began to fall, but he didn’t say anything else, and Tony sighed.

“He’s scared, Lu.” Tony kept rubbing Roman’s back.

“Of?” Lily’s fingers ran through Roman’s hair.

“Well. For one thing, having another brother. Which I kind of get, because I’ve never been a big brother before and I’m not so sure I’d like it either.”

“Wait…” Roman spoke, but neither Lily nor Tony gave him room to continue.

“Well, I suppose you’d have been an okay big brother,” Lily said slowly. “I’ve never been a big brother either.”

“You’re a girl anyway, so I’m not sure how that’d work,” Tony was relieved when he felt Roman’s shoulders relax slightly. Lily giggled.

“That’s true.”

“I never said I didn’t like having a brother,” Roman finally said. “I love Dean.”

“I know. Dean loves you. So if it’s not the big brother thing…”

“It just...it’s just everything, Mom,” Roman’s dam finally burst. “I know it’s dumb but I just...I don’t want things to change. And everything is. I have to be the best at football. I have to keep my grades good so I can play. I have to keep up with Dean.”

At this, both Lily and Tony spoke at the same time.

“Ro, you don’t have to---” Lily began.

“Dean isn’t your---” Tony started.

“Mom. Dad. Have you MET Dean? He’s...he needs all of us to be responsible for him.”

Tony burst out laughing.

“Touche, buddy. Touche.”

“Okay. So you’re feeling overwhelmed, huh?” Lily continued to stroke Roman’s hair. Roman nodded, then continued.

“Yeah, but also...also, I just...I don’t want to go anywhere else.”

“Who says you’re going---oh, God, Roman.” Lily’s arms tightened around the child. “You actually...okay, you remember how when you first got here, we told you that you could leave at any time?”

“Yeah…”

“Well, that was complete and utter bullshit. You’re not going anywhere. Even if you BEGGED and PLEADED us to send you someplace else, they’d have to pry you out of my cold, dead arms and even then, I’m pretty sure I couldn’t let you go. Do you really think that Seth is going to change that?”

“I...no. No, but that’s the problem,” Roman whispered. “I KNOW I’m being dumb and I know you’d never send me away but then why am I so...why is it so hard?”

“Because you’ve spent two thirds of your life being let down by the same people who were supposed to take care of you,” Tony said softly.

“But it’s different now. YOU guys are just...you’re my parents; I know that; I just don’t get…” He trailed off.

“Ro, it’s okay to be afraid, you know? Because yeah, change sometimes sucks but sometimes it can be amazing. When we brought you home? HUGE ENORMOUS change, but you’re well worth it. And then we brought Dean home and you want to talk about change.”

“We went from having one calm, easygoing kid to having that incredible kid plus one who never sits still. Ever. And I’d be lying if I said there hadn’t been times when I haven’t wanted to velcro him to his chair,” Tony joined in. “But we don’t regret it. Not for a single second. It was a great change, even though it wasn’t necessarily an easy one.”

“So now it’s going to change again,” Lily said. “And there’s no chance that this one’s going to be any easier than the last one, but you know? I think it’s going to be okay. Daddy and I wouldn’t do this if we didn’t know we could. And you and Dean are so different, in the most wonderful ways, and I’m so excited to see what Seth is going to bring to this family too. You are growing up so fast, my baby boy, and we love you so so so much, but you’ve gotta let us be the grown ups, Roman. Let us be the parents. You’re a wonderful brother to Dean, and you’ll be an amazing brother to Seth, but brother is your job. Not Mom and not Dad.” Roman sighed deeply and nodded.

“Yeah...yeah. I know.” He’d stopped crying and was laying on Lily’s shoulder now. Tony didn’t stop rubbing his back, but he could feel most of the tension leaving Roman’s body.

“Buddy, you are an amazing, caring soul, and you’re right. You do have a lot of responsibility. So don’t shoulder more than you have to okay?”

“Okay,” Roman whispered.

“Because here’s the thing, my love,” Lily chimed in. “Dad and I understand. We understand as much as we possibly can. And your feelings are not wrong. How you’re feeling about this is totally acceptable. But you let this go way too long, kiddo. You’ve got to talk to us when it starts and you’ve got to let us help you so we don’t get to this point, because now you’re miserable. You had a lot on your plate, you were feeling stressed already, and then we added another fork and bam. It all came crashing down. It doesn’t have to be that way, but you have to talk to us. Do you trust us?”

“I trust you. I trust you so much,” Roman’s voice was still a whisper, but Tony heard him loud and clear.

“Good. Then trust us to make the right decisions for this family okay? And you just be a kid. That’s all you have to do, buddy. Just live your life. Open your heart, and do your thing. It’s going to be fine.”

None of them spoke for quite awhile. Tony couldn’t see Roman’s face, but he was just about to figure he’d fallen asleep when he spoke again.

“So...Seth.”

“Yeah...Seth.” Lily answered. “He needs us, Ro. And I think you need him a little too, because you’ve got to see that we’re right. You are so irreplaceable. But that doesn’t mean we can’t let someone else in.”

“Have you met him?”

“Yes. We have.”

“What’s he like?”

“Well...right now he’s such a mess that it’s really hard to tell what personality is under there. He hasn't really spoken much---we aren't sure yet if he can't or if he won't. And he's really small for 12. But he's also---like he's got bruises and stuff, but the main reason he's in the hospital right now is he was really dehydrated and undernourished when they brought him in to the ER. He just got off an IV...he's eating just enough to get by right now. And he acts...Ro, we just don't know yet. He seems so much younger than 12, but he's literally been living a hellacious existence since he was two years old. So we're not sure if what we've got right now is fixable or if he's always going to be behind. But there's no hurry. He's sweet though. He loves music---that helps calm him. He has virtually nothing, except a complete set of Harry Potter books, and I read him a few chapters earlier today. He let me get right beside him, and that’s the closest he’s allowed either of us to be.”

“He’s scared to death of me,” Tony added. “But his biological father is where this all started. Then he got passed around in foster care, and then wound up in the group home from hell. So we expected that.”

“Yeah. We did. And that’s okay. We’ll get there. He has no idea what love feels like, though. Or what it means to have a family, or to have people who aren’t going to hurt him, who just want to protect him. And that’s where you and Dean are going to be the best thing for him, because you’re just normal, amazing kids and he’ll see you and hopefully he’ll start to understand that it’s okay for him to be a normal, amazing kid too.”

“Mom...there’s really nothing normal about Dean,” said Roman.

“And that, my darling, is exactly why this is going to be okay,” said Lily with a snicker. “Because you get it. You’ve embraced Dean for exactly who he is. You’ve never expected Dean to be someone else, someone easier. We wouldn’t have our Dean any other way. It’ll be the same with Seth.”

“It’s the same with you,” Tony added.

“What’s going to happen to the people who hurt Seth?” Roman asked.

“We don’t know yet. We’re more concerned with the people who did nothing to stop it, honestly. The people who actually hurt him are really just kids themselves. Not that they should get away with it, but...I can’t fathom knowing that was happening and allowing it. That’s just despicable.”

“So then...when do I meet him?” Lily smiled a massive smile.

“When would you like to?”

“I don’t know...soon. I guess soon.”

“Soon is good. Roman, we love you. You know that right?”

“Yeah. I know. I love you too. Both of you.”

“Good. Promise me something though okay?” Lily’s voice sounded serious.

“What’s that?”

“You’ve got to promise me that you’ll talk to me whenever you start to get upset. You were right when you said that Seth is going to take up a lot of our time, but you need us too and we have no intention of neglecting you. You just have to tell us. Okay?”

“Okay. Mom? I really am sorry. I shouldn’t have pushed you earlier.” Roman hung his head a little.

“I know. It’s okay, Ro. Stuff happens. Don’t be sorry okay? Just...don’t do it again.”

“Okay. Okay. I won’t. I’ll do my best for Seth. I promise.”

“Good boy. Maybe we should go meet him tomorrow. Dad and I already kind of figured that we wanted you to meet him first. Because you know, Dean is just...kind of...antsy.”

“What if he’s afraid of me?”

“He’s going to be afraid of you, Ro. He’s afraid of everyone and everything unfamiliar right now. All you can do is just prepare yourself for that. Don’t push. Don’t back down either, but don’t force. You can do it. And I’ll be with you.”

“Okay. Tomorrow. I can do this, Mom. Dad. We can do this.”

“Love and trust are the two things this family is built on, buddy. I have no doubt in my mind that we can do this, as long as we remember those two things.” Roman looked up at Tony. And then he smiled.

 

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The next morning, Tony took Dean to school and Lily and Roman set out for the hospital to visit with Seth. Dean had been unhappy and rather vocal about Roman getting to meet him first, and getting to skip school to do it, but Lily and Tony held firm. Roman felt it was kind of nice to see Dean not getting his way every so often, though he’d never say that out loud.

They pulled in to the parking garage and Lily led Roman upstairs to the pediatric ward. The nurses, he noticed, recognized his mother immediately. Roman wondered how long his parents had been working on this. He made a mental note to ask them later. They stepped up to the nurse’s station.

“How’s he doing?” Lily asked the woman sitting at the desk. She looked up and smiled.

“He seems a little more responsive today. He ate a little breakfast. Then we told him you were on your way with a new friend, and he’s been in hiding ever since. That’s kind of a good thing though. Any response is probably better than no response.”

“In hiding?” Roman questioned. Lily smiled.

“Yeah, he kind of---well. You’ll see. Come on. Let’s go meet Seth. Just remember. Don’t push, but don’t back down.”

They walked into the hospital room. It was small, and it had a bed in the middle. At first, Roman looked around, wondering where Seth was ‘in hiding’ and then he realized that the blue blanket covering the bed had a small lump under it. Small as in tiny. Tiny as in no 12 year old could possibly be in there. And then his mother gently pulled the blanket back.

The first thing Roman saw was a full head of riotously curly dark brown hair. It was simply crazy; it flew out in all different directions all over his head. Then he realized that Seth had curled himself into a tiny little ball. But he regarded Roman with huge brown eyes like a deer’s. He didn’t say a word, just stared at him, shivering. Roman’s chest constricted as he noted the bruises circling Seth’s wrists. They looked like he’d been shackled. Or held down. He also had several bruises in varying stages of healing all over his face. It looked painful, and Roman wondered sadly how much pain poor Seth was in.

“Hiya, bub,” Lily murmured softly to the boy trembling in front of her. Seth attempted to dive back under the blanket, clearly more comfortable where he couldn’t be seen. Lily gently pulled the blanket back off of Seth again.

“Noooo,” Seth began to wail, but Lily murmured,

“Shhh. Ten minutes, bub. Give me 10 minutes and then you can go back under there. I want you to meet Roman. This is my son, Seth. My oldest. Can you say hello?”

Roman couldn’t actually believe what he was witnessing; this kid must have really been through it for him to be so frightened, and his parents had said it was like this all the time for him. He felt his heart soften.

“Hey, Seth,” Roman spoke softly, determined to follow his mother’s instructions to take it slow but not back off. “How you doin’?”

Seth just shook his head, his hair flying wildly around.

“It’s okay. I know how you feel. They were all new to me once, too. Mom says...that you like it when she reads to you?”

Seth still didn’t speak, but he pulled a book out from under the blanket. Roman could just see the cover; Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

“Is this your favorite?” Roman asked. A small nod encouraged him to keep going.

“I’ve never read those,” Roman continued. “Maybe someday you can show me. When you’re feeling up to it. I did bring you something though.” Roman unzipped his backpack and pulled out his worn copy of The Hobbit.

“This one’s my favorite. It was the first one Mom and I read together. When I first came home, I liked it when she read to me, too. I mean, I still do. But then, it made me feel safe. I guess now it still makes me feel safe. So anyway, I thought maybe...you know, if you want, I thought maybe I’d read it to you. Like it doesn’t have to be right this minute. Just, you know. When you’re up for it.”

Seth’s eyes were still wide and frightened, but then, he slowly nodded.

“When you come home, I’ll show you. We have tons of books. Hundreds. Maybe even a thousand. Dean isn’t much of a reader. He likes to be read to, but he’s not crazy about reading by himself. Dean’s kind of...energetic in general though. You’ll meet him soon, I bet. He’s a good guy. Kind of a butt. Mom says that’s his lot in life as my younger brother.”

Seth continued to regard Roman, but the fear on his face was slowly ebbing. He still said not a single word, but Roman could tell he was eating this up. So he kept talking. And Seth kept listening, long after the agreed upon 10 minutes had ended. He told Seth about football and school, the community center, the house, the pets...just anything he could think of. And 45 minutes later, when Seth finally realized he’d heard enough and felt like hiding again, he took off under his blanket. But then something happened that caused Lily to inhale sharply.

Seth slipped his hand out from under the blanket. Roman gently took it. Seth did not pull away.

“You’re so amazing, Ro,” Lily whispered into his ear, kissing his cheek as she went. Then she went around to the other side of Seth’s bed. “Maybe we CAN push just a little,” she said to Roman with a quick wink.

Lily reached out and rubbed Seth’s back softly through the blanket. At first Seth tensed and let out a soft mewl, but Lily just kept rubbing him and talking softly.

“You’re being such a good boy, bub. I’m so proud of you. I’m proud of Roman too. See what a good big brother he’s gonna be to you? Oh, Seth. You’re such a good boy, bub.”

And Seth relaxed. The keening sound under the blanket stopped. So Roman took that opportunity to talk to his little brother some more.

“See? She doesn’t want to hurt you, Seth. She wants to keep you safe. She’s kept us all safe. It’s okay. You don’t have to be afraid anymore.”

Eventually the lump under the blanket began breathing slowly and evenly. Lily peeked under it and Seth was fast asleep. She practically scaled the bed to tackle Roman into the biggest bear hug of his life.

“Jesus God, Roman Reigns, I am SO SO SO proud of you. Oh, Ro. That went better than I could have ever asked you for. You are such an amazing kid, Roman. I’m so blessed to be your Mom.” At that moment, Tony walked into the room.

“Where’s bub? Hiding?”

“Yeah. But Tony. Tony, you wouldn’t believe what this amazing child of ours---he’s been talking to his brother all morning. Seth even let him hold his hand. Seth OFFERED him his hand. I was just telling him how proud we are to be his parents.”

“Oh, wow. That’s amazing, Roman.” Tony’s grin was contagious as he hugged Roman tight.

“Hey---guys...I’m...I’m not gonna get upset again or anything, but...how long have you known about this?” Roman finally asked.

“Well...let’s see, today’s Thursday...they pulled all the kids out of the group home on Saturday. Cassie called us Sunday afternoon. She told us Seth was here and was going to need what’s called a therapeutic foster home. That means parents who can commit to helping him heal psychologically as well as physically.” Lily looked thoughtful, and Tony took over the explanation.

“Cassie told us upfront that he was terrified, especially of men, so we met him together on Monday but I’ve been holding back. Letting Mom do most of the dirty work, because right now I just want to let him see that I mean him no harm. He’s got a long way to go, buddy. But it sounds like today’s been some real progress.”

“It wasn’t that we wanted to keep any of this from you and Dean, kiddo,” Lily finished. “But we knew we needed to meet Seth and decide whether or not we could truly do this before we dragged you into it, because the last thing I wanted was for anyone to form a bond, only to have it broken because...because we couldn’t help him.” She ran her hand slowly over Seth’s back again.

“But if anything, today you’ve proven to us that we made the right choice. Because make no mistake, Seth is not your responsibility. But he’s also clearly comfortable with you, and he needs that. He needs you to teach him that Daddy and I aren’t here to hurt him, that he’s lovable and valuable, and that it’s okay to let people get close to
him.”

“I think...I think I need him too,” Roman said quietly.

“Oh yeah? Why’s that?” Tony wanted to know.

“I think I need him to help me feel better about everything else. Just...to remind ME that it’s safe to trust as well.”
“You have always been an old soul, Ro,” Lily murmured. “But I’m really thinking you’ve shown maturity beyond your years today. I’m just so proud.”

Roman knew he was beaming. His parents’ praise was hardly unusual, but it felt especially important right now. He decided right there that he was going to do whatever he could to help get Seth home safe and sound, and help him adjust to his life with his new family.

 

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Lily, Tony and Roman left Seth around noon. He was still sleeping, and they really wanted to take Roman out to lunch before dropping him off at school in time to take his history test and go to football practice. They made plans for him to come back to the hospital that evening, work on the work he’d missed that morning, and just hang out with Seth. Tony was going to take Dean to the batting cages and out to their favorite sports grill. They all agreed that the next day, Dean would be pulled out of school to come meet Seth. Then they’d all take turns visiting him over the weekend. Lily really hoped that they’d be able to take him home by Sunday, even though she knew mid week was probably more realistic. The fact that Seth had allowed her to touch him, even though he’d been hidden at the time, really resonated with her, and she was fairly certain that it wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t been so comfortable with Roman.

Also, she was touched that Roman had brought his own favorite book to offer to read with Seth. They had a common ground. What Seth and Dean would have in common was anyone’s guess, but Lily figured they’d find something.

It was as she and Tony were riding back to the hospital that the idea hit her.

“Hey, let’s run home quick,” she said. “I want to get the videos of Dean riding his bike to show Seth. I think it might help if he sees a little bit of Dean before he actually meets him.”

When they returned to the hospital, Seth was still burrowed into his hiding place. Lily couldn’t tell if he was sleeping still or not, but she opted to just leave him alone for now. She figured if he wanted out he’d come out, and since he’d done so amazing when he’d met Roman, she was done pushing for the day. A nurse stopped in to inform the Girardi’s that Seth hadn’t wanted any lunch though. She told them he’d seemed a little depressed, more than anxious or frightened. Lily wondered briefly if that had been because he’d woken up alone.

An hour or so after they got there, a soft squeal came from under the blanket that was hiding Seth from view. Lily and Tony looked at each other. Then Lily smoothed the blanket over Seth’s back. He let out another small cry. She gently pulled the blanket down to his shoulders, but he desperately began to struggle to get back under his safe spot.

“Come on, bub,” she murmured. “Ten more minutes, okay? Please? Give me 10 more minutes. Let’s read your book. Want to?”

Seth stopped fighting and considered her, gazing up at her with those huge doe eyes. Then he hesitantly took his Harry Potter book and slid it across the bed so that she could reach it.

“Can I read to Tony too?” She asked Seth softly. Tony stood up to approach the bed, and although Seth didn’t answer, he also didn’t panic. They took that as a yes. As she read to Seth, she found her hand snaking closer to his hair. She didn’t make eye contact, nor did she stop reading, but she began to run her fingers through his curls, which were insanely soft. Seth seemed to tolerate it, so she didn’t stop. Eventually though, he began to squirm. He’d begin to crawl back under his blanket, but then he’d stop and close his eyes as Lily continued to stroke his hair. He looked conflicted; did he want the safety of being unseen, or the comfort of her touch? Tears formed in his eyes and he started to shake. Lily took this as an opportunity.

“It’s okay, bub. I know this probably feels funny, huh? You can go back under if you need to. You’ve been such a good boy, bub. Can you talk to me? Tell me what you need.”

He shook his head wildly and trembled harder. Lily was honestly not sure what it was that Seth wanted. He was clearly growing terrified, but when she took her hand off his head, the sobs began to escape. Lily looked at Tony over the trembling child. Then she looked at Seth. And then she knew exactly what she needed to do. It was a huge leap of faith, but she had to try. She wrapped Seth up in his blanket---and then scooped him up into her lap.

Seth froze for about three seconds, then shrieked for about 30 seconds, and then Lily started stroking his hair again.

“No...no...nooooo,” a wail began to rise up from the child, but it stopped as suddenly as it started. She could feel him shaking, could feel his heart pounding even engulfed in the safety of his cocoon.

“You’re okay, Seth. It’s okay. I’ve got you,” Lily crooned, rocking him on her lap. And Seth responded. His small body stopped shivering. Lily could feel the tension begin to ease out of him. And when he rested his head on her shoulder, she knew she had him. This was the step they had needed to take in order to begin to establish a bond; this was what had to happen for Seth to begin to understand that as long as she lived, she was never going to allow anyone to hurt him ever again.

Chapter Text

After Seth was released from the hospital and brought home, the stress level in the house grew to nearly a fever pitch. The first two nights, all he did was scream in fear, despite Lily staying with him and offering as much comfort as she could. Unfortunately, nobody got much sleep. After that he was so exhausted that he slept all day, which completely got his days and nights mixed up. So then, even once he’d begun to feel safer, he still couldn’t sleep at night, and Lily was unwilling to just leave him to his own devices, so she’d stay up with him. It might have worked for her to stay up all night and then sleep when Seth slept during the day, except she still had Dean and Roman to take care of as well.

If she tried to keep him awake during the day, he cried and cried as though he’d been beaten, and hid under the comforter on his bed. He barely spoke and eating was hit or miss. They still weren’t sure how much Seth could actually speak, but it didn’t take long for them to determine that he understood. Unfortunately, he didn’t always interpret correctly, and anything that Seth felt was a threat sent him into a frenzy of tears, uncontrollable shivering, and often he disappeared into the closest place he could find to hide. One evening, Dean dropped a heavy serving bowl on his foot while he was helping dry the dishes. The bowl shattered, leaving Dean bleeding and shrieking in pain. Tony had hoisted him up as though he weighed nothing and carried him to the bathroom, and his parents spent the next hour tending to Dean. During that time, Roman realized he had no idea where Seth had gone. He was just about to panic, until he realized that half the dogs were missing too. He went outside and immediately noticed that Stella and Wyatt’s tails were sticking out from under the porch. And that’s where he found Seth, curled up in a tight ball, sound asleep. Lily found them shortly after Roman pulled him out, and he’d panicked again. She sat down on the porch steps, and Seth immediately crawled up on her, wrapped his arms and legs around her, and hid his face in her neck. Lily, Roman, and Seth sat out there like that for quite some time, Lily murmuring soothing words and Roman patting Seth’s back. Eventually Seth calmed down and they’d gone back into the house.

Roman was a Godsend during that time. One Friday night, knowing he could sleep in the next day, Roman stayed up until 4 am just reading to Seth so that Lily could get a few hours of sleep. Another afternoon, he’d spent three hours laying on the floor of Seth’s closet, trying to coax his terrified brother out from under a shelf after something had upset him. It became very clear very quickly that Seth was very comfortable with Roman, allowing him to sit beside him until they touched without becoming upset. And it didn’t take long for Roman to become quite skilled at making Seth smile.

 

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For as easy as it was for Roman and Lily to bond with Seth, it was twice as difficult for Tony and Dean. Seth just simply had no use for men yet. And Dean had a tendency to be too excitable. He didn’t mean to be, but that was just who he was. The day he and Seth met, Dean had inadvertently knocked Seth right out of his hospital bed, and it basically went downhill from there.

Within a month, though, things got easier. Seth spent a lot of time watching curiously as Tony, Dean, and Roman wrestled, or raced bikes, or played football, or shot hoops. He always declined their invitation to join them, but each night he seemed to get a little closer, until one evening he was standing right at the edge of the driveway. Dean had dribbled the ball, then flung it at the smaller boy, hollering “hey, Seth, CATCH!”

He regretted it immediately, envisioning the ball breaking Seth’s face and his mother’s wrath when Seth, lightning quick, reached up and caught the ball millimeters from his nose.

They all stood there stunned for a moment, no one apparently more shocked than Seth that he’d actually caught the ball. Then Tony grinned.

“Good catch, Seth. Ever shot?” Seth shook his head, and he allowed Tony to talk him through the technique needed to shoot the basketball. His first shot ever sailed right through the hoop, and the celebration afterwards was loud enough to bring Lily out from her office.

“Watch Seth, Mom!” Dean had shouted gleefully, and he passed the ball to Seth, who sank another shot effortlessly. Dean knew his mom was pretending to be impressed but what was very real was the relief and happiness in her eyes.

Then Dean and Seth discovered they had another common ground---a pathological fear of storms.

Dean had never liked thunder. Bad things always seemed to happen to him when it was thundering and raining outside, almost like the shift in humidity or air pressure or something caused a glitch in his mother’s boyfriends’ brains. He didn’t remember much about individual beatings, but all of the ones he DID remember included a thunderstorm. So the sound of thunder caused his stomach to constrict and his heart to pound. Sometimes, he could distract himself enough to prevent a full-blown panic meltdown. But the best thing was always to make it to Roman’s room before he lost all control of himself and did something dumb, like cry.

So when he heard thunder rumbling in the distance one night, he tried to block it out by putting his blanket over his head and pressing his face into a pillow. As the storm got closer, though, the thunder got louder. When it hit so hard that the house vibrated, Dean leaped up from his bed, grabbed his blanket and pillow, and headed out the door. But as soon as he hit the hallway, he heard something else. Muffled cries were coming from Seth’s room.

Ugh, now Dean had to make a choice. He could leave Seth there and let somebody else figure it out, but seeing as he knew EXACTLY how Seth felt, that didn’t seem fair OR right, even though it would have been easy. He could attempt to find his mother, but that meant more time wandering the halls with the loud rumbling boogeyman right outside the house. Or he could try to convince Seth to join him in Roman’s room.

Option 3 seemed smartest, though he had no idea if he’d be able to convince Seth to do ANYTHING. So he went across the hall.

“Seth?” A sharp squeal pierced the air.

“It’s okay, Seth,” Dean tried to remember what his parents had said about handling Seth in this state. Calm voice, slow movements. He could do this.

“I know. I hate this too,” Dean whispered. “Come with me to Roman’s room, okay?”

“N-n-no…” Seth whimpered. “No, thanks.”

“Look, I’m not going to hurt you, all right? Just come with me. It’s better in there. Honest.” Seth regarded Dean with giant brown eyes, wide with fear. Dean sighed and began to get up when the loudest crack of thunder yet hit outside and Seth leaped forward and hid his face against Dean’s shoulder. Dean couldn’t believe it; Seth hadn’t yet made any sort of physical contact with him.

“Come on. Let’s just come on,” Dean whispered, his heart racing as thunder shook the house . Seth wrapped himself up in his blanket and took off down the hall after his brother.

“Rome?” Dean raced in, Seth trailing after him.

“What?” Roman’s reply was groggy; that kid could sleep through anything.

“Rome, we’re scared! Can we sleep with you?”

“We? What we---ohhhh. Both of you, huh?” Dean nodded. Seth pressed his face against the back of Dean’s shoulder. Roman sighed.

“Good grief. Get over here you two.” Pulling Seth along with him, Dean crawled into Roman’s bed. Thunder ROARED over their heads, and Seth burst into tears then, hiccupping and sobbing and trying desperately to crawl under Dean. Dean locked Seth's in his arm and rolled, pulling Seth with him, until Seth was snugly between him and Roman. Seth buried himself under Roman’s blanket and shivered and squeaked every time it thundered again.

Roman got up and found his iPod, found a station that played soft piano music, and placed the noise-cancelling headphones firmly over Seth’s ears. Seth calmed almost immediately.

“Hey, why have you never done that for me?” Dean accused him.

“One, you have your own headphones. Two, you’ve never reacted quite like this. Three, I just now thought of it.” Roman muttered.

“Oh. Well, okay.” Dean sighed.

“Roman?”

“Yeah?” Roman had his hand resting softly on Seth’s back, feeling his youngest brother’s shudders begin to slow.

“Do you think Seth is...like...will he ever be...you know...normal?”

“Dude, Dean. Not something we should be talking about when he’s right here in the room,” Roman replied.

“He can’t hear us,” Dean argued. “But...like sometimes it seems like he’s really good, you know? But sometimes doesn’t he seem way younger than 12?”

“I guess, but it’s like Mom and Dad have said. He’s never had anyone to teach him and his whole entire life has been nothing but abuse. I’m surprised he can read and write. Mom says he’s barely gone to school. The group home he lived in was supposed to provide schooling but no one’s sure yet how much he actually got.”

“Yeah...yeah, I guess.” Thunder clapped again and Dean winced, then huddled down around Seth, who appeared not to have heard it, but Dean reckoned it wouldn’t hurt to get close to his brother anyway, just in case he needed him. He noticed the grin on Roman’s face but couldn’t interpret it. He kind of had a feeling he was being laughed at but he didn’t care.

“And he reads REALLY well,” Roman went on. “He loves it when I read to him but he also loves to read to me and by himself. I mean I guess that’s really all he’s comfortable doing.”

“But there are so many MORE things,” Dean replied.

“Well, maybe he’s just not ready for more things yet,” was all Roman had to say. “But you need to remember that no one forced you to do stuff when you first got here either. It’s only been...what, about a month?”

“Has it been a month already?” Dean wondered.

“It’s been 26 days,” said a voice from the doorway.

“Mom?”

“Hi, baby,” Lily came into Roman’s room. “Tell me Seth is under there somewhere.”

“He’s in here,” Roman confirmed. “I think he might be asleep.”

Lily peeled back the comforter. Seth was indeed fast asleep.

“Aww...look at that. You even put headphones on him? Oh, what good big brothers you are!” Lily cooed at them, kissing them each on the cheek.

“It was Rome’s idea,” Dean muttered.

“Yeah, but Dean thought to bring him in here,” Roman countered.

“It doesn’t even matter who thought to do what. Look at him, sleeping in between you. He obviously trusts you both so much. I’m proud of you two. Seth is such a lucky boy.” Lily rubbed Dean’s back. “Do you want me to put him back in his bed?”

Just then another crack of thunder banged overhead. Dean ducked his head, covering the youngest boy slightly, but Seth didn’t stir. Lily looked like she would explode with pride.

“They can both sleep in here, Mom. It’s okay,” Roman didn’t really mind. Sometimes he liked it when Dean crawled into his bed; with Seth in there it would be a tighter fit, but he looked so peaceful that Roman REALLY didn’t want to disturb him. He knew sleep was still difficult for Seth. Even now (26 days later? Crazy.), although Seth no longer slept during the day, there were many nights Roman would wake up to the sound of his little brother screaming down the hall, followed by the soft whoosh of his mother’s bare feet on the carpet. At first Roman always got up to see if there was anything he could do to help, but his mom would always just wave him off.

“Just a bad dream,” she’d say. “He’s okay. Thank you, Ro.” And Roman would go back to bed.

Now, although Roman still often woke up when Seth was in peril, he typically stayed in bed. One night about two weeks after Seth joined the family, Tony was in Washington and Lily was nowhere to be found when Seth began screaming hysterically. Roman waited but after his mother didn’t come, he couldn’t ignore it anymore. He’d gotten out of bed and motioned to Honey Badger to follow him.

When he and Honey had gotten to Seth’s room, Seth had been curled up in the fetal position. All of his blankets were tangled around him, and he was sobbing, “no. No, please!”

“Seth?” Roman spoke softly. Sensing his presence, Seth panicked, but it soon became apparent to Roman that part of the problem was he was so tangled in sheets and the comforter, he couldn’t move. Roman looked around. He had no idea why their mother hadn’t heard the commotion and come running, but clearly she hadn’t so it was up to Roman now. Just then, Dean appeared in the doorway, roused from his sleep by the sound of Seth's sobs. His honey blond hair was sticking out in a hundred directions, and if he hadn't been so concerned for Seth, Roman would've laughed.

"Who tied up Seth in his bed?" Dean demanded to know.

"Nobody. I think he must've been struggling in his dream and gotten all tangled and now he's confused. I think he's still half asleep."

“Wake up, Seth,” Dean murmured. “Do you want to hug the dog? Huh? You want Honey to come lay by you? Sometimes when I'm scared I like it when Gator comes and lays with me." Seth’s eyes flew open, but he continued to cry and moan.

“Hey, that’s it,” Roman picked up where Dean left off, slowly untwisting his brother from his binds. “That’s good, Seth. It’s okay. You’re just stuck. Did you have a bad dream?”

Seth hiccupped and nodded. The second his arms and legs were free, he curled up and hugged his knees. He peered at Roman and Dean, eyes red and swollen.

“Wanna tell me about it? I’ll listen if you need me to,” Roman had stretched out next to Seth, who was still curled up tight. Dean perched on the edge of Seth's bed. Seth violently shook his head, curls flying everywhere. There was a long pause and then...Seth had leaped into his brothers' arms, burrowing his face against Roman’s neck and reaching for Dean with his arm. Stunned, Roman slowly wrapped his arms around the younger boy, and Seth trembled for awhile. Dean crouched down so that he could look straight into Seth's eyes.

"Do you want me to go find Mama, Seth?" Roman couldn't believe the gentility in Dean's voice. Seth nodded. Then there was Lily’s voice in the doorway.

“Seth? Are you okay, bub?” She came and sat on the edge of Seth’s bed. Seth immediately disengaged his arms from Roman’s neck and crawled into Lily’s lap, drawing one of her hands up to his hair as he did so. She rocked him gently.

“Did you have a bad dream?” Seth nodded. Then, clear as day, he whispered,

“Roman and Dean helped me.”

Lily smiled down into Seth’s now sleepy face, still stroking his curls, trying to tame them somehow. She pressed a soft kiss to Seth’s forehead.

“Roman and Dean love you. This is what having a family is about. Aren't they good big brothers, bub?” Seth simply nodded, eyes closed. Lily had indicated that Roman and Dean could go back to bed, but they wanted to stay, and awhile later, when Seth was calm and asleep, Lily had tucked the blankets around all three of them. That was the most Seth had ever spoken at once since arriving in the Girardi’s care.

Chapter Text

By Thanksgiving, Seth was doing much better. He had started going to school just in the mornings, but he was adjusting to it so quickly that there were already plans for him to begin going full time after the winter break. Lily remained on leave so that she was immediately available in case Seth needed to be picked up, but he never once did. Tony was so proud of the boy. When he wasn’t in school, he was in therapy. Tony had never met child who went to as many different therapies as Seth, although the idea of therapy for a child who’d been abused was hardly a new one for them. It had been a hard thing, but he was adjusting beautifully. He even began letting Tony get closer. He still rarely had much if anything to say, but he began to join Tony, Roman and Dean in their activities. The thing Seth seemed to love the most was fishing. He had even allowed Tony to hold his wrist gently to show him how to cast his line into the water. It had seemed like such a small thing, but Tony felt like it was the Fourth of July going off inside his stomach.

Seth and Dean also found another common ground---wrestling. One Monday night the two older boys were watching RAW and Dean looked up and noticed Seth standing in the doorway with one of his blankets, just looking at them quietly. Roman patted the cushion between them on the couch.

“Come watch with us,” he said. Seth crawled up onto the couch and wrapped himself up in his blanket and watched curiously. Soon enough, the show began getting rowdy, and that usually meant Dean did as well.

“Spear me, Rome!” He’d begged. Roman looked at Tony for help.

“Just move the coffee table and don’t tell your mother,” was his only advice.

Roman sighed; Tony knew it wasn’t that he didn’t LIKE wrestling with Dean as much as he didn’t want to make Seth nervous. There had been many times when Tony and Roman and Dean had been roughhousing and Seth had completely misunderstood, and run to Lily in tears. Lily always brought him back and sat with him in the chair, holding him on her lap, so that he could see that they were having fun, not hurting each other. But Tony still figured that it must look pretty frightening to his youngest son.

This time, though, after Roman had carefully taken Dean out with a gentle spear, Seth giggled from his perch on the couch. This made Roman and Dean laugh too.

“You want to try it?” Dean asked him.

At first, Seth shook his head, but then Roman had offered a hand.

“It’s okay. I’ll show you how. Like this.”

Roman and Dean took turns showing Seth several wrestling holds, and then Seth attempted to spear Dean himself. He landed maybe a little too hard, but Roman was right there, and before Seth could even think about it, he was praising his little brother.

“That was really good! No, don’t worry, Dean’s okay. Right, Dean?”

Dean nodded and then started to laugh. It took Tony a minute to realize that Seth’s right foot was poking into Dean’s ribcage, and Dean had a tendency to be pretty ticklish. Roman noticed it too, so he gently took Seth’s hands and said,

“Let’s get him!”

Together, Roman and Seth tickled Dean mercilessly, giggling like little boys while Dean laughed and shrieked and begged them to take pity on him. They finally stopped and let Dean breathe, and then Dean sat up and hugged Seth.

“Isn’t this fun?” Dean asked him, and Seth nodded.

That was when Tony happened to look up to see that Lily was standing in the entryway watching. He had no idea how much of the boys’ display that she had caught, but she had the happiest tears Tony had ever seen running down her cheeks. That night, Seth was nightmare free for the first time in the almost three months he had lived there.
They flew to New York City the Saturday prior to Thanksgiving. Lily and Tony had opted for a hotel stay this time, hoping to ease Seth into meeting the family as slowly as possible, and a hotel seemed smartest so that they had a quiet place to take him when things got hard. They had two adjoining suites, the boys in one, the parents in the other. The hotel had a huge pool, hot tub, and sauna. Seth had been working on learning to swim (and doing quite well). So everyone was happy with the arrangement. Until it was time to actually get on the plane. Tony and Lily quickly surmised that Seth had never been near one before. Dean and Roman absolutely loved to fly, and Seth never complained prior to arriving at the airport. However, the second he stepped on board, he stopped in his tracks. He began gasping for air, shaking his head, and whispering “no.” Lily instructed Tony, Dean, and Roman to go ahead and board while she pulled Seth to the side and tried to calm him. Tony got Dean and Roman settled into their seats (praise the Lord for First Class), and stepped off to see if Lily needed help. Seth was straddling her lap, face hidden in her neck, still shaking his head and trembling.

“We have to do this, Seth. It isn’t fair to Dean and Roman if we don’t go,” Lily was murmuring into his ear. “I’m gonna stay right with you. We fly all the time. It’s fine; it’s okay.”

“You two okay?”

Lily sighed.

“Maybe I should take him home, and he and I can try like a Red Eye or something later…” she mused.

“No...no, he’s got to do this. Flying is going to be part of his life, Lu. He’s going to have to get used to it,” Tony’s answer was firm.

Lily sighed again.

“Should’ve brought the Benadryl,” she muttered.

“All we have is Dramamine,” Tony replied. “Did you show him what we bought him though?”
“Ooooh, that’s right; I can’t believe I forgot about that ,” Lily said. “Okay, Seth. Let’s get on board because we have a present for you.”

“No,” Seth whispered.

“It’s okay. Come on, bub. We can do this. Daddy and I are with you.”

“Wanna go sit by Roman and see your present?” Tony cajoled gently.

Seth allowed himself to be guided to his feet and to the door of the plane. Both flight attendants were looking at him sympathetically.

“Is this the first time?” Her nametag read Celeste.

“This is his very first time,” Tony replied. “And he’s pretty worried.”

“Come on, Seth,” Lily guided him to their seats, then wrapped her arms around him as he began to shudder and cry again.

“It’s okay. I’ve got you. Let’s buckle your seatbelt and look what Daddy has.”

Tony pulled out a brand new iPad with a brand new set of noise cancelling headphones. Dean and Roman were already engrossed in theirs across the aisle.

“See? Look. We have to have it on airplane mode right now, but you can still listen to music.” Tony placed the headphones over Seth’s ears and showed him how to find the music. Lily handed Seth a tissue, and he dried his eyes and then leaned back against the seat. Tony offered each of the boys some gum, and the plane took off and made it to New York without another issue. The return flight was much smoother.

 

________________________________

 

One thing the three boys were incredibly good at was getting sick at the same time, and they were particularly talented at doing so when Tony was away on business, leaving Lily to handle it on her own.

On a windy afternoon in mid-February, Lily picked the boys up from school, stopped at the gas station to fill up the tank, and sent the boys in with some money to get a drink and snack. Roman and Dean came out with giant Big Gulps and bags of beef jerky and chips. Seth came out with a small cup of clear soda. Lily raised her eyebrow.

“You okay, bub?” She asked him.

“Yeah.” It had been about five months since Seth came home, and while he was talking more now, he still was a child of few words.

They’d all gotten back in, Dean in the front, Seth and Roman in the back. Lily glanced at Seth several times as she tried to maneuver the Highlander through the busy streets. He looked slightly pale. Roman was watching him too. Lily didn’t see Seth’s face contort in pain, or hear the slight gag he let out, but Roman did and he urgently said,

“Mom, pull over!”

And then he crawled across the seat---just in time for Seth to vomit.

Lily heard it before she saw it, then looked in the rearview to see her Roman trying to catch his little brother’s puke with his bare hands while Seth heaved over and over. She pulled off to the side of the road.

“Oh, bub. Oh, baby. Why didn’t you tell me you were sick? Roman, angel, don’t touch anything. Just get out.”

Seth looked horrible. Vomit ran down his chin and neck and shirt. Roman had managed to keep it off of the car, but he had it running down his arms and on his shirt. Lily pulled a blanket out of the trunk.

“Take your shirts off. Wipe your hands. Seth, it’s okay, bub, it happens. You’re not in trouble. Don’t cry,” her youngest seemed so devastated, tears and sweat running down his face, nose dripping---he was a pitiful sight. She wanted to hug him but she knew she needed to get him home. Roman finished wiping it off with the blanket and Lily went to work trying to help Seth clean up.

“Dean, hand me his soda,” she commanded. Dean wrinkled his nose but complied, certainly not willing to ignore the Mom Voice.

Once everyone was cleaned up and back in the car, Lily drove as fast as she could to the house. Seth managed to wait until he climbed down from the Highlander before he vomited again all over the driveway.

“Shhh, it’s okay. Roman, go take a shower. Scrub REALLY good. Dean, hose this off, please. Seth, let’s go. You need a bath.” Lily knew Seth was miserable when he didn’t have the energy to protest. She took his temperature; 102 on the nose. Great, she thought. He soaked in the tub for quite awhile before she brought him clean pajamas. He threw up again right after he changed, but this time he made it to the toilet, retching while his mother held his hair away from his face and patted his back. Lily helped him rinse his mouth, made him drink some water, and tucked him into his nice cool bed, a trash can and a bunch of towels on the floor beside him.

Lily took a shower herself, then wandered out to find Roman laying on the couch reading his economics text and Dean playing a video game.

“Ro, make sure you tell me if you don’t feel good, okay?” Roman nodded. He looked fine, but the child had been actually touching Seth’s vomit so Lily was positive that he would get sick as well.

Poor Seth was miserable. Lily got out the fixings for make-your-own tortilla pizzas so Dean and Roman could fix their own dinner. When she went back to check on Seth later, he was sitting up in bed clinging to the trash can, face as white as a sheet. Lily sat with him and rubbed his back as the vomit finally came in waves.

“That’s it, bub. Get it out,” she murmured soothingly. When he was finished she took the trash can and dumped it out and rinsed it, and returned to find Seth fast asleep. She offered him some cool water, which he drank unconsciously, but he was definitely settled and calm now. Lily placed a damp cloth on Seth’s forehead before checking on the other boys. They still looked okay. Lily still sensed it was going to be a long night.

It wasn’t too bad, though. Seth didn’t get sick again after about 2 am. He slept pretty well for the rest of the night, and Dean and Roman woke up fine, so there was no question that they were going to school. Lily wasn't entirely sure what to do with Seth though. He was still out cold. She debated. Then she tucked his blanket around him.

“Bub?”

“Mmmmm? Mama?” Seth whimpered and burrowed under the blanket.

“How does it feel this morning?” Lily asked softly.

“Mmm’okay,” Seth was clearly out of it.

“I’m going to take your brothers to school, Seth. Do you want to get up and ride along, or are you okay sleeping here?” Her question was met with a snore, so she opted for the latter. She hustled Roman and Dean into the Highlander and dropped them off at school, then stopped at Costco to pick up a case of Gatorade and the ingredients for homemade chicken soup. Nothing was amiss when she pulled into her driveway.

Then she was met at the door by three barking dogs, which wasn’t altogether strange but also wasn’t the norm. Not bothering to put anything away, she shot back to Seth’s room. She found him curled up on the floor in the middle of the room. His bed, sheets, comforter, and carpet were covered in vomit. Lily groaned.

“Mama, I got sick again,” Seth whimpered from the floor.

“Yes, I see that,” Lily replied. She looked him over. He had vomit in his hair and down his chest. He needed a shower. The smell in the room was almost overpowering, so she took him into her bathroom and helped him bathe. Then she changed his pajamas and settled him on the couch with plenty of towels, Gatorade, and a bucket. He dozed and she cleaned the mess in his room. When she came back out to the living room he was out cold. Lily felt his forehead, noting a low fever, and sat down curled up in the recliner. She fully intended to try and catch a nap while Seth slept, and she sincerely hoped that he was done vomiting, because much more would warrant a doctor visit.

She dozed for about 30 minutes before hearing her phone vibrate on the table.

Creek Ridge Middle School was the name on the caller I.D. Lily swore under her breath..

“Hello,” she answered with trepidation, not even bothering to sound cheerful.

“Hi, Dr. G! I’m sorry to bother you but one of the boys just came down to the office. Seems he threw up in math. Are you able to come and pick him up?”

Oh, Roman, Lily thought. You must’ve tried so hard...outwardly, she said,

“Of course. I’m on my way.”

No longer willing to leave Seth home alone, she picked up the bucket and her purse and put them in the Highlander, then gently eased Seth up into a sitting position.
He whimpered.

“Shh, it’s okay. Ro’s got it too. We have to go get him. I’m so sorry, Seth. I know you want to sleep. You can sleep in the car, baby.”

She settled Seth on the back seat, and tucked the blanket around him. He was asleep again within a couple of minutes. When they arrived at school she left him in the car.

When Lily walked into the office, she was shocked to find not Roman but Dean sitting in the nurse’s office, trash can between his knees. His face was ghost white, his eyes red-rimmed, and his body shivered. Lily sat down beside him and rubbed his back.

“I’m sick, Mom,” Dean moaned.

“I heard. It’s okay, sweetie. I’m going to take you home.”

Lily kept rubbing Dean’s back while she asked the secretary to please call Roman down to the office. Roman walked in. He looked at Lily. She looked at him. His eyes were glassy and his face was familiarly pale. Lily picked up Dean’s trash can and handed it to Roman, who instantly fell to his knees and threw up into it. The secretary looked at Lily in astonishment as she got a paper towel wet and wiped Roman’s mouth. Roman looked up at her miserably.

“How did you know?” He whispered.

“Oh, Mama knows, child,” Lily replied. “Mama knows.”

Chapter Text

Mama did, in fact, know. Seth never did throw up again but both Roman and Dean puked all night long. It seemed like she barely finished cleaning up after one when the other was ready to get sick again. At 2 am, Lily brought them both in her room and tucked them into her bed, the floor on each side blanketed with towels and a trash can for each of them. At 3, when Seth woke from a bad dream, she brought him in too and settled him on the chaise in the corner. Then, deciding to take caution, she got a third trash can for him as well. Just in case. Then, standing back and surveying the room, she got out her phone and took a pic, captioned it “Pukapalooza” and sent it to Tony with the message: “Hope Italy is lovely. You owe me big.”

She kept the boys out of school the rest of the week. By Friday Seth probably could’ve returned but he was still feeling a little weak and he had extreme anxiety over being there with neither of his brothers in the building. While Dean and Roman slept, she took her baby with her to pick up all of their missed work, then to the grocery store for extra Jello, crackers, bread, etc. On the way home she stopped at Jamba Juice for three small smoothies, in case Dean or Roman felt up to it. Seth sipped his in thoughtful silence. Then he turned to Lily.

“Mama?”

“Yeah bub?”

“Sometimes it’s nice to spend time just me and you,” Seth revealed this to her as though he was letting her in on a secret. She smiled at him.

“I agree, bub. I like just Mom/Seth time. I like spending time one on one with all of my boys.”

Seth considered this. Then he whispered,

“Before you, no one ever took care of me…”

Lily felt her heart ache. She looked over at her youngest child, then took his hand.

“That’s the thing, Seth. You’re part of a family now, bub. There will always be someone to take care of you, for the rest of your life. Seth, do you like it here?”

“Yeah,” Seth whispered. “I feel safe.”

A grin spread over Lily’s face.

“Good. Drink your smoothie, bub. We’re almost home.”

Later on, Lily and Seth sat at the table working on his math assignments. Lily enjoyed this quiet time with him. It was a bit of a shock to everyone how quickly Seth had picked up everything he’d missed from his younger days, but he was a highly intelligent child. All three boys were, especially Dean, who tested off the charts, even though he often lacked motivation in class. Once his parents, Roman, and a tutor really worked with him, he discovered he COULD read. He just hadn’t been taught to his particular learning style before.

“Mom?” Seth looked up at her from his algebra, coffee colored eyes wide and questioning.

“Yeah bub?”

“I was sick. Dean and Roman are sick. How come you didn’t get sick?” Lily’s smile was contagious.

“Mom antibodies I guess,” she replied. “Or maybe God just knows that watching my kids sick is punishment enough. I don’t know. Roman’s been sick and Dean and now you. More than once, Dean and Roman passed the crud around, and every so often they spread it to Dad. I never seem to catch it though. Knock wood.”

“Why do people say that? Knock wood?” Seth was full of questions.

“You know, I’m really not sure, bub. I know it’s some sort of figurative language. Maybe you should research it later.”

“Maybe...Mom, did you know that Roman wants to play pro football?” This was the most Seth had asked since he had arrived, and Lily absolutely loved it.

“I did know that, baby,” she replied. “For the 49ers. Though I think just playing pro ball would be plenty for him. The team doesn’t matter. I’ve considered pulling some strings in Green Bay…” Seth wrinkled his nose at this.

“Dean doesn’t know what he wants to be yet,” he seemed to be considering this as well.

“I know. But Dean has all sorts of time, bub. So what do you think you’d like to be when you’re older?” She asked him, and was surprised when he replied without hesitation,

“I want to be in the FBI just like Dad.”

“You should tell him that sometime,” Lily murmured. Seth shrugged.

“Yeah...sometime, I will.”

 

__________________________________

 

Seth woke up on the morning of his thirteenth birthday feeling different. Not older. That was silly. But different, and in a good way. He also noticed the clock by his bed said 11:23. School had been out for a week now. Seth didn’t usually sleep in. Usually sleep was the enemy and he woke up easily and once it was light outside, he allowed himself to stay up because by then, he wouldn’t be a nuisance to his parents.

Last night, when Mom had asked him where he wanted to go for his birthday dinner, he’d answered without hesitation:

“Benihana. But don’t tell them it’s my birthday.”

A couple of days earlier on Roman’s birthday, they’d let on to the waitress at Rainforest Cafe that it was his birthday, and he’d been required to stand up and let the whole restaurant sing to him. Seth shuddered. No thank you. He didn’t need that kind of attention. Not even for free dessert.

He got up and meandered out to the living room, noting when he passed Dean’s bedroom that his brother was still asleep. Roman was playing Call of Duty in the living room. He looked up and smiled when he noticed Seth.

“Hey, baby brother. Happy birthday! Wanna play?” Seth nodded and scooted over so he was side by side with Roman.

“Where’s Mom?” Seth asked. Their mother had returned to work on an extremely part time basis. She did surgeries on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons, consulted with patients on Monday through Thursday mornings, and didn’t work on Fridays at all. They found that schedule to be amenable to all of them. The boys still got to hang out at the community center a couple of days a week, but Lily’s schedule was very flexible too, so she was able to get to them if they needed her.

“She went in to town,” Roman said. “Said she had go get some stuff for your birthday.”

Seth raised an eyebrow. He’d survived Roman’s birthday, Dean’s birthday, Lily’s birthday, and a Christmas. He knew holidays were a big deal around here. But he’d told her Benihana and he really hadn’t expected much more than that.

“What did she need? We’re going to Benihana later; what else is there?”

“That’s classified. Good call on Benihana, by the way. I love that place.”

Seth grinned. He had never been there, but he’d looked over several places online and that was the one that seemed appealing to him. He loved Asian food and a hibachi just sounded fun.

“What’s classified?” He demanded to know.

“Can’t tell you.”

“But Roman….”

“Sorry, brother. You’ll just have to be surprised.”

Seth hated surprises. Surprises never seemed to be as much fun as you figured they ought to be. Like just then, when Roman surprised him by killing his last op and winning the game. Seth sighed and got up. He’d read, he decided, until his mother got home and then he’d interrogate her. He hadn’t asked for any presents. He had everything he needed. They had provided him with a home, brothers, food, clothing. An education. They always handled his many needs with nothing but patience and respect. He certainly couldn’t ask for any more than that.

He was also aware, however, that his parents did birthdays big. Christmas had been big. Christmas had been too much. They had stayed home, but the gifts had been sent in from all over, plus his parents’ desire to spoil their boys, had overwhelmed Seth to the point of trying to hide behind his mother on the couch, his face hidden in the back of her shoulder. She’d pulled him out and held him on her lap, promising him that he didn’t have to do anything else. He’d watched Dean and Roman instead.

Seth thought back to Roman’s birthday a few nights before. He and Dean had given him a football helmet autographed by Colin Kaepernick. Seth thought Roman was going to cry. Instead he tackled both his brothers into a huge group bear hug, which Seth happily returned and Dean pretended to try and wriggle out of. Seth grinned. It’d been fun. He heard his mother’s car door slam.

He met her at the door.

“Seth, move, baby, this stuff is heavy,” she’d tried to sidestep him.

“What is it?” Seth demanded.

“You’ll find out later, baby. Hey, happy birthday! You were asleep when I left!” She leaned over to kiss his forehead. He allowed it. He didn’t hate his mother’s affection; truthfully, he even really liked it. Ever since that day in the hospital when she had started stroking his hair, he’d been open to touch from his mother. Tony was different; that was harder. But Seth was trying really hard, and Tony seemed to understand.

“Mom? I don’t know but Roman said...I mean...am I getting presents tonight?”

Lily stopped what she was doing and studied her son.

“Well, yes,” she answered slowly. “It’s your birthday, Seth. Traditionally, that is how birthdays tend to be celebrated. Are you okay with that?”

“I just don’t like people watching me…” he cast his eyes down to the floor.

Lily seemed to get it. She hugged him tight for a minute.

“It’s just me and Dad and Roman and Dean,” she whispered. “That’s all. No singing at the restaurant, or anything like that. It’ll be okay.”

Seth nodded but he wasn’t sure he felt better.

Benihana was delicious and every bit as entertaining as Seth had hoped. He and his brothers ate until they were stuffed and then they were each permitted to order huge ice cream sundaes to boot. Lily and Tony had kept their promise and not a word was mentioned about his birthday. That was saved for when they got home. There, they sang to him, but it wasn’t nearly as horrible as Seth had imagined. They had cake, too; the boys were ALWAYS hungry and by then, there was just enough room in their stomachs. It was chocolate with chocolate frosting. And it was homemade. Seth marveled at this; when had his mother baked him a cake? No one had ever...he sighed. This was not the time to become overly analytical. This was a time to relax and enjoy being part of a family.

After cake, his family led him to the living room, where a small mountain of cards and gifts covered the coffee table. Most of it was birthday money; having sat through Dean’s birthday in December and Roman’s a few nights ago, Seth figured he would not be excluded. He opened the rest of his gifts slowly. His parents gave him an iTunes gift card, the Nike sneakers he’d had his eye on, four new shirts, two Blu Rays, an external hard drive for his laptop, and a Chicago Bears hat (Lily had long ago made peace with Seth’s chosen team). He thanked his parents profusely, and settled back against his mother feeling thoroughly content, when suddenly Roman and Dean produced one last box.

It was long and thin. Seth looked at them curiously.

“This is from us. Open it,” said Roman.

“Yeah, yeah, open it up, Seth!” Excitement radiated off Dean, who was practically bouncing up and down.

Slowly, Seth undid the ribbon, then lifted the lid off the box and gasped. His eyes grew wide as he stared down at the contents of the box.

It was a broomstick. An exact replica of the Firebolt used in the Harry Potter books and movies. Seth was stunned. He picked it up. He turned it over. Then he wordlessly looked up at his brothers.

“We thought you’d like it to hang on your wall,” Roman began. “Since you don’t have much stuff to decorate your room yet…”

“I picked it out!” Dean shook his arm excitedly. “Do you like it Seth? Is it right? That’s the right one, right?”

Seth slowly nodded.

“It’s amazing. It’s perfect,” he whispered.

Maybe his birthday wasn’t so bad. This had possibly been the best day of Seth’s life.

Chapter Text

Tony knew Seth was feeling good because it had been over two weeks since his last nightmare. He and Lily kept that to themselves, though. Neither knew if Seth realized it, but both worried that if he did, he’d feel the pressure and it’d be over, at least for awhile. So they celebrated in silence.

They had a busy summer ahead. All three boys had court dates. Trips were planned to the Gulf, San Antonio, and mid-July, when Tony travelled to Washington on business, Lily and the boys were coming as well. None of them had ever been there, and Tony tended to feel like his trips were kind of a waste because he was usually done with business by lunch time, and then he had no one to spend his afternoons with. It wouldn’t hurt to teach the kids some history. Maybe seeing it firsthand would make Roman like it better; history was still the one subject he struggled with.

The night before they left for Galveston and their rented beach house, he and Lily laid in bed.

“Do you….ever think about adopting one of them?” Tony knew the question was sudden and random, and he already knew the answer anyway, but he still wanted to
ask.

“I think about adopting all three of them. All day every day,” Lily’s reply came without hesitation. She rolled to her side, and looked up at him.

“Do you? Ever think about it?”

“All the time,” Tony confessed. “So…”

“Why don’t we.” Lily finished his sentence and he nodded.

“You know why,” she murmured in response.

“Lu…” Tony didn’t want to argue. He got it. He understood his wife’s hesitation. At one time he completely agreed with her. But...he was starting to feel a bit different.

“Look, T---it’s not...all feelings aside, there are obstacles to overcome with all three of them,” Lily was making excuses. Tony knew this.

“Seth’s biological father is no obstacle,” Tony said.

“I’m thinking more of his biological mother,” Lily’s rebuttal stopped Tony for a second.

“We don’t know where she is. Or if she’s even still alive.”

“Exactly. We don’t know. If she comes back and haunts us...then there’s Roman’s biological father.” Lily wasn’t giving in. Tony wasn’t either though.

“What about him? He hasn’t been around since Roman was two; that’s been 12 years now. He signed the birth certificate; he can’t claim he didn’t know Roman existed. So he can’t refute an adoption,” Tony argued. “Besides, Lisa’s never going to regain custody. And we both know that when Roman goes to court in June he’s going to tell the judge he doesn’t want visitation anymore.” Lisa Reigns was Roman’s biological mother.

“Just because she’ll never have custody again doesn’t mean she’ll lose her rights to him. You know how this works, T. And to be honest, I think if we adopted the others and not Roman, he’d be so crushed.”

“He knows how loved he is. I think he’d understand,” Tony sighed. This wasn’t working. It never did, but he tried every so often anyway. “And what about Dean?”

“I’d say Dean is the wild card anyway,” Lily muttered.

“What does that mean?”

“You know he’s got court soon. You know Shelby Ambrose was given the choice two years ago of jail or rehab. You know she chose rehab. I have no idea how she fared there, but if she completed it it’ll be that much harder to get her stripped and---”

Tony was just annoyed now, and he interrupted Lily.

“You’re just looking for any reason you can find, aren’t you. I know, babe. I know you don’t want to get hurt again, but---” It was Lily’s turn to interrupt.

“Oh, no, don’t even go there. You know this isn’t about me. You know what haunts my dreams, Tony? Not that we lost the girls. But the looks on their faces when they were taken away...dammit, you know what it would do to those boys if we fought and LOST one of them? Can you honestly say you could live with yourself if you had to look into the eyes of the two that stayed and deal with how losing a brother made THEM feel? Because I can’t.”

Tony knew it was useless to argue anymore. No matter what Lily said, she was sticking with her story, and he didn’t know what it would take to change her mind, but he wasn’t armed with what he needed to make that happen.

 

_________________________________

 

The ride to Galveston was completely silent. Lily drove, Roman in the front seat, Seth in the back with Stella and Wyatt. Dean was riding separate, with Tony in the Escalade, and they had Gator and Honey Badger. They took two vehicles because they wanted to bring the dogs and because a beach trip required considerably more luggage. They bought all their food in Houston and packed it into ice chests, there were extra towels, sand toys, and the like. They were on the road by 8:15, but it hadn’t been a good morning.

There was obvious dissention between Tony and Lily. It unnerved Roman, angered Dean, and outright frightened Seth. None of them knew what their parents had argued about, or if there’d been an argument at all, but their parents were all about open communication and they didn’t behave this way very often. The first thing that had gone wrong was when Roman let the dogs out for their morning romp, they’d all seen a rabbit and taken off, barking happily. It happened a lot and normally was okay, but they’d come back muddy, so Roman had to rub them all down with towels, effectively causing him to take longer to get ready. Tony had grumbled something about just leaving them at home under his breath, and that made Lily grumble something about leaving Tony at home under her own breath.

The tension was too much for Dean, who simply couldn’t handle tiptoeing around his parents, and wasn’t normally expected to. He responded by messing with Seth. Incessantly. Seth was getting bolder. He was learning that he didn’t have to put up with Dean’s crap, and he started griping right back at his brother, but a comment about Dean resembling a dinosaur from the Land Before Time had Dean balling up his fist and waving it at his younger brother. Dean would have never actually hit him, but while everyone else knew it, Seth didn’t. He’d burst into tears and hid behind their mother. Lily had been trying to load an ice chest at the time, and Seth grabbing onto her made her drop it on her foot. It had opened up and it’s contents had gone everywhere. Packages of steaks and chicken and hamburger went flying. Lily had already let loose string of curses over the pain in her foot, but to top it all off, Gator, back from his romp and already cleaned up, grabbed a steak and ran away with it. Back through the mud.

And although Dean lived for pushing his limits with his parents, he also couldn’t handle it when he finally stretched them far enough, so when she’d snapped at him to go sit on his bed until it was time to leave, he’d taken off behind the house instead. Tony had come to the garage to find meat all over the place, Seth sniffling, Lily sitting on the fender of the Highlander rubbing her foot, and Roman standing there completely baffled by the whole situation. It would’ve been pretty funny actually, if his parents hadn’t already been upset. But the look on Tony’s face was enough to make even Roman shiver. Seth, who still had a healthy fear of Tony anyway, couldn’t take it, and he ran back into the house sobbing. That aggravated Lily, who limped in after him, calling over her shoulder at Tony to please do something.

Tony sighed.

“I guess we’re having that kind of day, huh, buddy?” He smiled at Roman.

“I guess...are you and Mom mad at each other?” Roman was nervous.

“No. We’re not mad. We had a difference of opinion on something and that happens sometimes, and every so often we get stubborn. But it’ll be okay.”

“This morning has been like A Comedy of Errors,” Roman said, helping his father gather up the meat and lift the cooler into the car.

“A what?”

“It’s Shakespeare, Dad. We read it last year.”

“Ahh...well, someday, you’ll have to tell me about it but for now we’ve got to get on the road. Thank you, son, for helping take care of this stuff.”

“You’re welcome, Dad.”

Roman went into the house and was relieved to find that Lily was sitting on the couch between Dean and Seth, hugging them both.

“Now listen, I shouldn’t have snapped at you, sweetie, and I’m sorry for that. However, you know better than to threaten to hit your brothers.”

“But I wasn’t gonna---” Dean tried to interrupt.

“No, Dean, baby, I know you wouldn’t, but that’s the thing. If you wouldn’t then why pretend you would? Just to upset him? That isn’t how we treat people in this family, sweetie. I understand it’s been tense around here this morning and I’m going to fix it, but who’s responsible for Dean’s choices?”

Dean sighed.

“I am.” He leaned across Lily. “I’m sorry, Seth. I wasn’t nice. I promise, I’ll never hit you. I’ll try to do better.”

Seth considered Dean with wide eyes. Then he shrugged.

“It’s okay. I believe you. And I’m sorry I said mean things to you, Dean.”

Lily hugged both boys and kissed their foreheads before telling them to use the restroom and get their bags they were taking in the car. Then she stood up and hugged and kissed Roman too.

“Do you ever get tired of being the mature one?” She asked him with a smile.

“Well...I am the oldest,” Roman answered.

“I love you, Ro. Thank you for helping Dad and me handle this mess of a morning. Go get your stuff, huh?”

Roman nodded.

Now, in the car, Roman could still sense that his mother was unhappy, and he knew Seth did too because he kept throwing Roman nervous glances from the back seat. He tried to give him comforting looks. Eventually Seth fell asleep curled up on his seat with his head against the cool window. The ride was only about an hour and a half, but it never mattered. Seth almost always slept in the car once it got going, especially on the highway. Sometimes he fell asleep on the way home from school. Roman stared out his own window. He loved watching how everything changed between leaving the city and the coast. The skyline melted away as the beach got closer. Roman could almost feel everything begin to slow down. He hated city life. It helped that they lived on the outskirts of town and had all their land, but Roman knew when he grew up he wouldn’t live in Houston. Maybe he’d find a spot outside of town near his parents. He’d live by them forever if he could.

Soon enough they rolled up to the rented beach house. It was where they always stayed in Galveston. His parents had a timeshare. The house was big, completely furnished, and had a loft that was the perfect size for three boys to share, with a big tv, an XBox, DVDs, two big beds and a sofa that pulled out into a third bed. There were board games and books as well, and a bathroom to the side. It just held a sink and a toilet, so they had to shower downstairs, but that was okay. Roman helped his mom put the food and kitchen things away, while Dean and Seth dragged the beach things out back. As they did, both Lily and Roman heard Seth cry out.

They ran to the back door and saw Dean pulling Seth. Lily started to bolt towards them, but stopped short when she realized what was happening. Dean wasn’t dragging Seth as much as he was guiding him towards the sand. Seth’s feet were bare, and Dean was talking to him in the most tender voice either Lily or Roman had ever heard from him.

“Come on, Seth. You gotta see what this feels like. It’s amazing...come on. Don’t be scared.” Seth hesitantly stepped into the sand, took a few steps forward, and froze. He wiggled his toes. Then he giggled.

“See? It tickles,” Dean said gleefully. Seth let out a happy moan as he buried his toes into the sand.

“It feels good,” he whispered. Dean smiled at him gently.

“I know. It feels really good.”

“I’ve never touched it before…”

“I know. I hadn’t either until last summer. Want to go closer to the water?”

“The...water? No...no, no, not the water yet…” Seth stammered a little.

“I have an idea. Let’s get Roman and go build a sand castle and bury Dad.” Seth giggled.

“We can bury Dad?” His eyes gleamed.

“Dad lets me and Roman bury him every time. Mom says no ‘cuz she can’t stand having to get sand out of places sand was never meant to go.”

Seth giggled again.

“Sounds itchy,” he said.

 

__________________________________

 

Lily and Roman watched this entire exchange in silence. Lily felt relieved. It was good to see Dean and Seth getting along and to see Dean treating Seth so gently. Eventually, Tony, Lily and Roman joined them outside, and eventually, they did coax Seth down to the water. At first he clung to Lily about five feet from the edge of the beach, but she wrapped her arms around his middle and walked with him closer while Roman held his hands and guided them and Dean gently coached him from the side. As the waves washed over his toes, Seth stood motionless. Lily couldn’t see his face, but he wasn’t trembling or doing anything to indicate that he was distressed. Then she felt Roman guide Seth forward, so this time she let go. Seth squealed, a happy sound, as the waves continued to assault his feet. It made Lily laugh herself. Despite the rough morning, Lily and Tony both had high hopes for this trip. She knew there were some hard patches coming up, and providing fun getaways for all three boys was, she hoped, going to be a distraction from the heartache that was likely coming.

 

__________________________________

 

The rest of the day was filled with fun. The boys did in fact bury Tony in the sand, a deed that left all of them but especially Seth laughing like hyenas. When the day was at its hottest, they came in for awhile and watched a movie while Lily puttered around the kitchen making potato salad and fruit salad to go with dinner, and Tony went to take a shower, muttering about washing sand out of places he didn’t know he had. Whatever had been upsetting their parents earlier seemed to have been resolved; they were happy again, and Dean was relieved.

His parents never fought. Like ever. None of the boys had ever heard them yell. Every so often, someone would push one of them over the edge and the tone would get a little more harsh than necessary, but that always resulted in comfort, an apology, and an explanation. The very first time his mother had griped at him, Dean had immediately shrank away from her, expecting at the very least to be slapped. He never expected what happened instead. Lily had immediately wrapped him in her arms, and the second he realized he was getting a gentle touch, he had stopped trying to get away and instead pressed his face against her.

“I’m sorry, Dean. I shouldn’t have talked to you that way. I don’t like the choice you just made, but I love you and I didn’t mean to frighten you.”

It was rare that it came to that point, but both his mother and his father handled all three of them that way. You’d think that would make them want to get in trouble more often, but strangely, Dean didn’t feel compelled to act up again. Instead, he felt both relieved and guilty, and he usually vowed not to disappoint his parents again, at least until the next time he got a wild hair.

After an amazing dinner of grilled chicken, potato salad, and fruit salad, they’d all gone down to the beach again, now that the sun was lower and less hot. Dean threw a Frisbee for Gator and Wyatt. Honey was getting too old and Stella too lazy to join the fun, but they laid by Roman and Seth in the sand and watched with interest.

That night, the boys were so exhausted that Seth barely made it past the kitchen, falling asleep in the big chair in the living area while Roman got up to their bedroom before passing out. Dean showered, and then went looking for his mom and dad. He found them outside sitting in beach chairs in the dark, holding hands and listening to the waves.

“So...you guys are okay?” Dean approached them, and they both turned to look at him. Then Lily patted her chair. Dean crawled in and curled up on her lap.

“We’re fine, sweetness. Everything’s just fine,” she murmured, running her fingers through his damp hair.

“You don’t have to worry, buddy,” Tony added.

“I don’t want you guys to be upset. Not with me or with each other,” he whispered.

“We’re not. Not with each other and certainly not with you, Dean,” his father answered.

“But you were…” Dean wasn’t sure why he couldn’t just let it go.

“Last night we didn’t agree on something, sweets. We hurt each others’ feelings a little. We didn’t mean to but we’re not the perfect people you probably think we are,” Lily was still stroking his hair, which he loved even if he sometimes pretended he didn’t. He felt himself grow sleepy.

“What did you disagree on?” Dean mumbled. He was only half awake now, though, so he didn’t see his parents share a look over his head. Nobody answered for a moment. Then he felt his mother kiss his temple and heard her whisper into his ear,

“We disagreed on which one of us loves you the most.”

Dean woke up snug in his bed the next morning with absolutely no idea how he'd gotten there, feeling the most relaxed and content he’d felt in weeks.

Chapter Text

Roman had given up thinking of his biological mother as his biological mother and had long ago begun referring to her as Lisa. That way it was very clear to anyone involved that as far as he was concerned, Tony was his father, Lily was his mother, and he was a Girardi even if he couldn’t carry the last name. Lisa was an alcoholic and had been for as long as Roman could remember. She was always quick to remind him that she’d never wanted children; he’d come along and ruined her life instead. The whole reason he’d gotten picked up by Social Services at age 3 was because she would binge drink and then pass out, leaving him to cry and starve, too young to fend for himself. Twice over the course of the next 6 years, she’d been granted custody again, once when Roman was 5 and once when he was 7. The outcome was always the same though. She’d do good for a day or two, and then the drinking and verbal abuse would start right back up, and then the binging and sleeping would follow. The last time Roman was removed from the home, he’d nearly gotten himself and Lisa killed when he caught the stove on fire trying to make himself some canned spaghetti. At 7, it didn’t occur to him that his mother sloshing booze all over the stove was a fire hazard.

Since Roman turned 14 a month prior, it was time to go before a judge and tell him or her that he no longer wanted visitation with Lisa. In the last two years, she’d shown up five times. Five. Out of 24 scheduled visits. And when she DID show, she smelled of cigarettes and booze, and she wanted to hug and gush all over him, but it always seemed fake and Roman hated it. As angry as it made him when she didn’t show, he honestly preferred it. The smell of her made him sick to his stomach. Lily always smelled like Dove soap and apple chapstick, and when she gushed over him, she clearly meant it. Visitation was always the third Friday of each month from 4-6. During football season, he was allowed to go on Thursdays instead. The plan was for either Lily or Tony to drop him off at Social Services and return for him two hours later, but if Lisa didn’t show up after 30 minutes, they were called to come back, so they began hanging around, shopping, or running other errands, and then Roman was usually given a choice of a restaurant and they’d go for some one on one time to help him clear his head.

The times that Lisa DID show up, Roman always just wanted to go home and hide in his bed. Once, he threw up as fast as he could get to the bathroom. And whether she showed up or not, he never quite seemed able to stop the tears from falling once he tried to fall asleep. Luckily his parents knew all of this, and someone from his family was never very far from him on those nights. If Dean made it into his bedroom first, then he’d stay the night. Sometimes they’d watch movies on Netflix but sometimes, Roman would just lay there and cry while Dean spooned him and didn’t speak. It was a showing of compassion that they rarely saw from Dean, but all knew was in there and only came out when it was absolutely necessary. If it wasn’t Dean who spent the night, it was Lily or Tony, and recently, Seth had come down with a dog-eared copy of Maniac Magee and had settled in and read to Roman while he cried. He loved his family so much, and cherished their efforts to take care of him.

Roman wished that Lisa just wouldn’t show up for court. But in 11 years that he’d been in foster care, she’d never once missed a court date. He didn’t know why she even bothered, though.

He woke up on court morning filled with dread. His stomach hurt and his head throbbed. The first thing he did after sitting up was run to the bathroom and vomit. He heard a soft knock on the door, followed by his father’s voice.

“Buddy? You okay?” Tony’s voice was gentle and soft. He quietly opened the door and knelt behind Roman, holding his hair back.

“Dad, I don’t want to do this,” Roman whimpered and then a wave of nausea hit him and he threw up again. Tony held his hair and rubbed his back slowly.

“I’m so sorry, Roman. I don’t want you to have to do this either.”

“Can you call them and tell them I’m too sick for court?” Roman felt awful anyway. He was sweating and shaking and his knees felt like jelly.

“I could, but that would just be delaying the inevitable. Don’t you want to just get it over with instead of having to worry about it for another month?”

Roman knew Tony was right, of course. Then a horrible thought seized him.

“Dad, what if...what if she gets me back?” Roman gagged again, another heave working it’s way out of him.

“Shhh...not gonna happen, buddy. Just not gonna happen.” Tony wrapped a strong arm around his son. “Even if she did decide she wanted you back, no judge on the planet would grant her that. She can’t really even push for visitation if you’ve decided you don’t want to. The law says you’re old enough.”

Roman leaned his head on Tony’s shoulder and allowed the tears that had been threatening to fall. Tony leaned over and pulled Roman onto his lap.

“I know, son. I know. I wish I had some words or something to make this all easier. Dammit, Roman, if I could trade places with you I would. I love you, son. I love you, and Mom loves you, and Dean and Seth love you. Focus on that to get you through today, okay? That’s my best advice. Just hang on to that, and by the end of the day it will all be over.” Tony kissed the top of Roman’s head. Roman’s sobs immediately slowed, and he relaxed against his dad.

“I just want this to be over, Daddy,” he whispered.

“It will be soon, buddy. Soon. You just have to hang on, Roman. I know this is awful. Mom and I feel it too. We feel your hurt. But you have us to support you and as soon as it’s over, you’ll never have to deal with it again. Why don’t you take a shower? I’ll help you decide what to wear.”

 

____________________________

 

They dropped Seth and Dean off at the community center, in spite both of them complaining loudly that they wanted to come along. The sight of Roman trembling on the backseat of the Highlander was enough to make Lily wish she could break down into tears, but instead she reached back and offered Roman her hand. Roman squeezed it hard. When they arrived at the courthouse, Lily went around to Roman’s door, leaned in, and just hugged him.

“I love you,” she spoke with calm fierceness. “Daddy and I are going to be by your side. The only time you won’t be able to see one of us is when you’re speaking to the judge, and then it’ll be just you and him. No one is going to make you face her alone. When this is over, I’m going to take you to Sayuri’s and buy you the biggest plate of sushi you’ve ever seen.”

Roman giggled. Lily knew she’d addressed his fears. She also knew about the vomiting incident that morning. This was the hardest part about having foster children. Lily knew there was absolutely no chance of Lisa regaining any form of custody. Realistically, this should be easy. But Lily also knew that every so often, the system didn’t work the way it was supposed to. And she knew Roman knew it too. So just to be safe, she leaned down and whispered into her baby’s ear,

“And just in case, everybody’s passport is ready to go. I’m going to hide you in another country before I’m going to let anyone else have you. Believe that.”

The minute they walked into the courthouse, they could hear Lisa Reigns yelling at her attorney.

“I want a different fucking judge! Judge Malaska favors those fools, always has!”

Lily gave Tony a look, and they attempted to shuffle Roman back out the door before Lisa saw him and caused an even bigger scene, but they were too late. She looked up and saw him, then shrieked,

“There’s my baby boy! Roman! Get over here and give Mama some love!”

Roman looked paralyzed with fear. Lily saw Tony wrap an arm protectively across his chest, and she turned and stood in front of him and took his hands.

“Look at me,” her voice wasn’t mean but it also left no room to misunderstand. Roman’s eyes broke away from Lisa and met Lily’s. They were full of tears.

“Shhh...I want you to look at me, not her. You do not have to go to her. If you want to, that’s okay. We will not be upset with you. But it’s your choice.”

Roman nodded. She placed her hands on his cheeks.

“Deep breath,” she murmured. Roman sucked in some air. Then he let go of Lily’s hands. Lisa was quickly approaching him. Lily didn’t move, nor did Tony. They kept him in a Roman sandwich, effectively preventing Lisa from getting too close. Lily could smell the booze on her when she got within 5 feet.

“Josh! Keep her under control!” Tony called softly to her attorney. Just then Cassie swooped in between them.

“Lisa, have you been drinking? You know you may not touch him.”

Lisa paid no attention. She pushed Lily back and tried to pry Roman out of Tony’s arms. Roman burst into tears and tried to jerk away, resulting in Lisa grabbing a handful of his hair with one hand, and his wrist with the other.

“Get over here!” Lisa was screaming. “You are MY SON, and the least you can do is give your mother a hug!” Roman was clinging to Tony. Lily resisted the urge to tackle Lisa to the ground.

“Let him go. You’re hurting him. Lisa, you’re HURTING ROMAN! Let go of him!” She was pleading. She knew it, but she didn’t care.

Suddenly Roman was freed from Lisa’s grasp. A huge officer with a beard had gripped both of Lisa’s wrists tightly, so she had no choice but to let Roman go. It didn’t register with Lily that strands of his hair were hanging from Lisa’s fingers, or that he’d gone nearly slack in Tony’s arms, or even that he looked as though he was fighting to breathe. She just leaped forward and drew her son close to her.

“I’ve got you. Roman. Mama’s got you. Look at me, kiddo. Look at my eyes. Breathe, Ro. Mama’s got you.”

They could all hear Lisa screaming about who Roman’s mother really was as the officer dragged her down the hall, but no one paid attention. Roman’s face was ghost-white, and he was clearly having an anxiety attack. Lily could barely hold him upright. Tony was leaning into his ear, softly instructing him to take slow breaths. Then he carefully lifted Roman into his arms. Cassie guided them all into a small room with a few chairs and a table but instead Lily sat down cross-legged on the floor. Tony set Roman down with her and she cradled his upper body in her arms. Tony sat across from them and patted Roman’s back while Lily spoke to him.

“I want you to take a deep breath in through your nose,” she murmured. Keeping her voice calm was nearly impossible, but she knew she had to. If Roman caught even a hint of her own anxiety, she was never going to get him back.

“Come on, Ro. Slow, deep breath.” Roman was finally able to comply, and then suddenly, he began to scream. He sobbed and yelled and tried to push away from his parents, but they held him firmly, knowing he just needed to let it all out. It seemed like forever, but eventually he started to calm down. He stopped fighting. His breathing slowed. He began to shiver, and Tony covered him up with his suit jacket. The whole time, Cassie, who had been joined by the Girardi’s attorney, sat silently at the table. Tony got up and went to talk with them. But Lily didn’t listen. She didn’t care.

Once she could tell that Roman was no longer in distress, she let herself lean back against the wall, but she wasn’t willing to let him go. She wasn’t too sure if she’d ever let him go again, honestly. Lily felt her own rage begin to well up, but she forced herself to swallow it back down. It could wait until later. Instead, she focused on Roman’s sweet face. He still hadn’t spoken, and she couldn’t read his expression, other than he looked completely exhausted.

“Ro?” Lily whispered his name. He looked at her, blue eyes clearing.

“Mommy. I don’t ever want to see her again.”

All Lily could do was tighten her arms around Roman and kiss him. She wished she could promise him that, but the truth was, she just didn’t know.

 

_____________________________________

 

Seated at the table, the other adults kept their voices low. Tony couldn’t help it; he kept throwing looks at Lily and Roman, but he appeared to be okay now. Tony wasn’t quite as good at Lily at masking his fury though.

“How the fuck,” he began, his voice deathly soft, “does that even happen?”

Cassie shook her head.

“It shouldn’t have,” she said quietly. The Girardi’s attorney, a gentleman named Amos Vaughn, spoke up next.

“Lisa Reigns has been taken to the jail. She’s being charged with public intoxication---for now. I’m going to add assault as soon as Lily is able to press charges. It sounds like quite a few people witnessed Lisa shove her.”

“Amos. Cassie. Please don’t misunderstand,” Tony began slowly. “Because while I am more than incensed that she put her hands on my wife, my bigger concern here is that that woman HARMED MY SON.”

Cassie and Amos exchanged glances.

“I know, Tony,” Cassie’s voice was gentle. “And believe me, I’m not letting it go. They’re reviewing the courthouse surveillance to see if there’s a clear view of what happened.”

Tony nearly exploded.

“You were there! I was there, Lily was there, the police officers were there, Lisa’s fucking snake of a lawyer was there, and God knows who else! Why the hell are we waiting on video surveillance when so many people---”

“Tony.” Lily’s voice behind him sounded urgent. He turned around.

“What?” Tony knew he sounded a little sharper than he meant to, but he was just furious.

Lily looked down at Roman in her arms, then back up at Tony. Tony could see that Roman was asleep. Tears stained his face. A bruise was already forming on his wrist where Lisa had grabbed him. But he was okay. He hadn’t been badly hurt. That was supposed to be the most important part. He took a deep breath.

“I’m sorry, Cassie. I’m just---we love that kid. He’s ours; he’s always been ours, and the only reason I didn’t punch her face was because...well, honestly, because I couldn’t risk punching Roman instead.”

“I know. No apology needed, but this is my point: she did not manage to keep from hurting Roman. And Roman was already going to tell the judge he no longer wants visitation. So between those two things, plus assault charges---I think instead of charging her for hurting Roman, we need to petition to have her rights stripped.”

“Wait---what?” Tony couldn’t quite believe what he was hearing. He knew it was supposed to make him happy, but he was still just so mad.

Amos spoke next.

“I don’t think we exactly need the double whammy here, Tony. The most important thing is doing what’s best for Roman, right?”

Tony nodded slowly, then looked back at Lily again. It seemed to be dawning on her what was really being said.

“So...if Lisa gets her rights stripped, what will happen? How will that change anything?” Tony could hear the hope in her voice.

“Well...of course, if his biological parents have no rights to him, then someone will have to adopt him…” Cassie smiled at Lily. Lily squealed. Roman woke up startled. Lily instantly turned her attention back to him, cuddling him and kissing his forehead.

“Okay...so what you’re telling me,” Tony began, “is that this...this incident today, is going to get Lisa stripped of her parental rights?”

“If a judge takes everything into account that she’s already done, and then has a concrete, unshakeable video of Lisa hurting Roman? No chance any of them let her keep claim to him.”

“So instead of trying to get her in jail to keep her away from Roman, let’s just make it permanent instead.” Amos continued where Cassie left off.

Tony sucked in a breath. Then he looked at Lily. Hadn’t they just had this fight a few weeks ago?

“Lu?”

“Do it,” she whispered.

“You’re sure?”

“I know. I know what I said,” Lily began to cry and Tony leaped to his feet and went to her and pulled both her and Roman into his arms. Roman was indeed sound asleep.

“I know what I said,” Lily repeated. “But today, I didn’t keep him safe. I didn’t do what I’ve always promised him I would do. And that can never happen ever again, so whatever we need to do to make sure it doesn’t...just do it.”

Tony pressed his forehead against Lily’s.

“I love you so much,” he whispered. “Do we tell Roman?”

“We don’t tell Roman anything until we’re 1000% certain of what’s going to happen.”

“I’m good with that,” Tony hugged Lily again. Without looking up, he addressed Amos and Cassie.

“I’m going to take my wife and son home. We’re going to spend a few days helping him heal. Whatever you find out can wait until next week. But we’re trusting you both to guide us here.”

 

______________________________

 

Lily drove in silence.

Roman had woken up easily, but the first thing he’d said was that he didn’t want to do this and he’d begged to go home. He had seemed slightly startled when they’d walked him out to the car without a second word. Now Tony was sitting in the backseat beside him, and Roman was sitting with his head on Tony’s shoulder. He declined their offers of going out for lunch. Lily could tell he was still just spent.

She’d never felt more guilty in her entire life.

Roman had been terrified almost to the point of passing out. He’d been attacked right in front of her. He was clearly deflated. And Lily held the key, possibly the only thing that could help him feel better, but she couldn’t tell him. She knew that was the best thing. But she still hated it.

At home they offered him food again, and again, Roman declined. Instead he clung to Lily, then Tony.

“Don’t leave me,” he begged.

“No one is leaving you,” Tony tried to reassure. “Go change your clothes, buddy. Mom and I aren’t going anywhere.”

Lily changed into yoga pants and a t-shirt, then sank down onto her bed. She was exhausted. God, and it was only noon. She debated going back into town to get Dean and Seth early, but had just decided that maybe some two on one time would be the best thing for Roman when she was tackled by a ball of muscle and long black hair. As they landed back on the bed, Roman fell to the side of her. He was crying again. Lily rolled so she could face him and pull him tight against her.

“I couldn’t find you,” Roman sobbed.

“Shhh...I’m right here, kiddo. I’m right here.”

“Don’t leave me, Mama,” the fear in Roman’s eyes stung Lily to the core.

“Roman. Listen to me.” Lily planted a soft kiss on his forehead. “I know today just sucked, baby. I know. But Daddy and I are right here. No one is going to leave you, baby. Why are you so afraid we’re going to---”

Roman didn’t let her finish the question though. He buried his face into her side, shaking his head and crying harder.

“No, no, no, just don’t leave me,” he moaned in response. Lily sighed. Then she noticed Tony standing in the doorway holding a glass of juice. He brought it to the bed and put the straw between Roman’s lips. He drank and drank, and then he rested against Lily and closed his eyes. She began running her fingers through his soft hair. Tony’s hand joined hers, and they watched as Roman fell asleep.

“I don’t know what to do,” she whispered. “He’s never been like this before.” Tony stood, walked around the bed, and crawled in on the other side.

“He’s going to be fine,” Tony murmured, rubbing Roman’s shoulder. “Do you think maybe he’s just kind of in shock?”

“It wouldn’t surprise me, not at all,” Lily replied. “But I don’t know how to help him.”

“Do you want to see if we can get in with Dr. Enderle?”

“No...no, let’s just let him sleep and see how he’s doing after awhile.” Lily sighed.

Tony nodded.

“You said something earlier, at the courthouse…” Tony began. “You said you allowed him to get hurt. You know that’s not true, right?”

“I know that someone caused my baby boy pain right in front of me and I did nothing to stop her,” Lily replied. “As for what I would have done, I don’t have a good answer. I wanted to just knock her to the ground but then I’d probably be in jail too and what would THAT have done to Roman?”

“See, but that’s just the point,” Tony said softly. “That’s exactly what makes YOU his mother instead of her. You put Roman first. You ALWAYS put Roman first. Don’t blame yourself. Please don’t. He wouldn’t want you to.”

Tony was absolutely right and Lily knew it. She sighed again.

“Think it’ll work? Them taking her rights away?”

He grinned at her.

“I think they’re probably right. But even if she doesn’t lose her rights, there is absolutely no way they’ll force visitation on him anymore. So either way, he’s never going to see her again and that’s definitely good for him.”

“Yeah...can you believe it’s been four and a half years?” Lily gazed at Roman as he slept on her. “He’s going to be in high school...our babies are almost 8th graders...where does the time go?”

Tony laughed.

“I think every parent who ever lived has asked that question,” he said. “And I don’t think anyone has a good, solid answer.”

“Even after today, I feel like the luckiest Mama in the world. Because I get to keep this angel and his brothers forever.”

“We got what we needed,” he whispered back. “They have been exactly what we needed.”

Neither of them noticed that Roman’s eyelids flickered for just a second, or the soft smile on his lips. He just rolled over against Tony, and they snuggled in and held him tight together.

A few hours later, Roman was still asleep. He’d attached himself to Tony’s side and laid his head on his dad’s shoulder. There was a baseball game on TV, but Tony wasn’t really watching it. He had one arm around Roman and was studying his phone with the other. Lily had been reading when she glanced at the clock and then she stood up.

“It’s 3:30. I need to get Dean and Seth,” Lily said. She softly kissed Roman’s cheek and he shook his head and mumbled something.
“Shhh...it’s okay. Daddy’s got you, kiddo. I’m going to go get the boys and I’ll be back soon.” Roman just nodded a little, mumbled more inaudible words, and snuggled closer to Tony. Lily smiled. This was good. This seemed better.

 

________________________________

 

Dean looked like he was ready to explode. Seth sat next to him on the bleachers in the community center gym. They were up at the very top. That suited them both fine; Seth didn’t feel like talking to anyone and Dean was likely to bite the head off of anyone who even tried. They were worried about Roman. They knew it was kind of silly to worry, since their parents had explicitly told them that it would be around 4 when one of them came to pick them up. They had still been hoping, though, that perhaps if it all went well, they would come for them early.

It was Dean who noticed their mother walk in first, and he muttered a curse under his breath. Seth didn’t like cursing, but no way was he going to remind Dean of that right now. They both took the steps down two at a time.

“Where’s Roman? Is he okay?” Dean spoke at the exact same time that Seth asked,

“Mama? What took so long?”

Seth wiggled up under his mother’s arm. He needed reassurance and he knew the best way to get it. Lily hugged him tight.

“Guys, Roman is okay. He’s home with Daddy. He’s resting. It’s been...a difficult day. But good things are gonna come from it.” She sat them down and told them
about their morning. It made Seth feel sad.

“But he isn’t hurt? Not really?” Dean asked when she finished.

“No. He’s not hurt. He’s just super emotional---you guys know all about feelings and that was a LOT of feelings to process. Daddy and I are going to stay home the next couple of days and we plan on spending a lot of family time just relaxing together. That’s what’s best for Roman, I think. And you two being around. Normalcy. That’s what he needs.”

“What are we having for dinner?” Dean wanted to know. Lily smiled. Normalcy was what she had asked for, after all.

“I have no idea. Want to go to Target and pick some stuff out?”

“Like what?”

“Well, we could make pizza or nachos, or maybe a couple of sub sandwiches.”

“Can we get the pickles they keep in the cold section?”

“Sure.”

As Lily neared Target, her phone rang. Seth was in the front seat, so she asked him to answer it.

“Hello? Hi, Daddy. How’s Roman? Oh? He does? Okay, hang on, I’ll tell Mom.” Seth looked over at Lily. “Mama? Dad says that Roman is awake and wondering if he can still have a big plate of sushi from Sayuri’s.”

“Tell Dad that tonight Roman can have anything he wants.”

Seth relayed the message and then Tony said something to make him laugh. Then he hung up.

“What’s so funny?” Dean asked.

“Nothing. He just was being silly. Mama, can I get Sayuri’s too?”

“Absolutely. How about you, Dean? You still want to go to Target, or do you want to pick a place to get takeout for you and Daddy?”

“Does Sayuri’s have the chicken teriyaki with the big noodles?” Dean asked.

“Yeah.”

“Then I want that.”

They feasted that night, all together in Lily and Tony’s bed. Seth thought Roman seemed reserved but okay, and he and Dean were both relieved. After awhile, he settled himself into his mother’s arms and sighed deeply. This was how it was supposed to be. Not necessarily that no one was ever hurt, because that was not realistic. But when someone in their family did hurt, they pulled together to help. Seth suddenly realized his heart felt huge. He was lucky. Lucky to have found this family.

 

_______________________________

 

The trip to Washington was incredible. Dean and his brothers had never been there before. Every morning while their dad worked, the boys slept late. Then once they were up they hung out at the hotel pool until Tony returned. They went to Mt. Vernon, all of the museums and monuments, the White House, and the National Zoo. They ate at cool restaurants. Dean continued to fulfill his dream of owning memorabilia from every Hard Rock Cafe in the world. They returned to Houston with more court drama looming, but relaxed and happy anyway.

Then a week before Dean was to go before a judge and discuss his biological mother, the doorbell rang one morning. Lily and Tony were both at work, but Dean knew Lily was expecting a delivery from FedEx, so he went by the door, carrying a huge bowl of Frosted Flakes along with him. He swung the heavy oak door open---and gasped.

Standing before him was Shelby Ambrose.

The last time Dean had really seen Shelby, she’d been placing awful kicks into his abdomen and ribs. He stared at her. She stared at him. Then she smiled. Dean screamed and dropped the cereal. The bowl shattered at his feet.

Chapter Text

Seth and Roman both heard the bowl break, and they both ran for the front door. The woman standing there was staring at Dean with a very strange smile on her face. A tidal wave of milk and Frosted Flakes covered the foyer.

“You should come with me now,” the woman was saying. “That’ll make everything easier.”

“No. No, no, no,” Dean was mumbling low in his throat. He honestly looked as though he was on the verge of passing out. Seth had no idea WHO this woman was, but he had never seen Dean more upset or afraid. Roman seemed to know exactly what was going on though.

“Dean, you’re not going anywhere with her,” Roman’s voice was strong and firm. “Come on, Dean. You need to stay here.”

“Dean,” the woman was beginning to get upset, and she reached for Dean’s arm. The contact made Dean cringe. “Either way, I’m taking you back. You can decide if you want to go through the whole court thing, but if you just come with me now---”

Roman stood between Dean and the woman, the woman Seth had finally realized could only be Shelby. This wasn’t right, this wasn’t okay. Seth knew that none of their biological parents were allowed near them unless the court ordered some sort of visitation, and this clearly wasn’t it. He stepped forward, though he was terrified now, and took hold of Dean’s other arm, prepared to fight for his brother if this woman didn’t let him go.

“Dean. She can’t take you anywhere without Mom and Dad’s permission. Go back into---Seth, take Dean back into your room and lock the door. Call Mom and Dad and tell them we need them home right away.”

Shelby finally let go and glared at Roman, then turned her gaze to Seth and Dean. Once again, Dean cringed but this only steeled Seth’s resolve. Seth didn’t really know a lot of specifics about Dean’s past, only that he’d been abused by his mother and her various boyfriends. Now, his obvious terror told Seth that it had been way worse that a simple beating here or there. Absolutely no way was she taking Seth's brother with her. He'd die first. In a brazen display, Seth jumped in front of his brother. "Dean is OUR brother!" Seth yelled at Shelby. "YOU can't have him. He lives here and he's part of THIS family." Shelby scoffed at Seth, but he was undeterred. Dean was still mumbling “no” softly, but Seth didn’t dare disobey Roman right now. He gently grabbed his brother’s arm again and guided him down the hall to his bedroom. They shut the door and locked it. Dean sank down into the corner, trembling like a leaf. Seth pulled out his phone and called Lily.

“Mommy? Someone is here and she’s scared Dean and I think it might be---”

Lily interrupted him sharply.

“What do you mean, someone is there?”

“I mean we heard the doorbell ring, and Dean answered it. I think it must’ve been Shelby because we heard Dean drop his cereal and now he’s really scared, Mom.”

“Where are you three right now, Seth?”

“Roman told me to lock me and Dean into my bedroom so I did, but I don’t know where he---”

“I’m on my way, Seth. No matter what, you and Dean do not move until I get there. I’m calling Daddy and I’m calling the police. Stay calm, Sethie. You’re doing exactly right.”

“But---what about Roman?”

“If Roman comes back there let him in, but then keep the door locked. She isn’t going to hurt you but she definitely isn’t supposed to be there. Bub, I’m going to call Daddy, and then I’ll call you right back okay?”

“Okay, Mama.” Seth was scared now.

“Good boy. Just hang on, bub.”

Seth looked over at Dean. He hadn’t moved. He strained to see if he could hear anything out in the house, but all he heard was Dean’s quiet whimpers. Then his phone rang in his hand. He’d forgotten all about it and he jumped out of his skin, losing his grip on the phone. It flew onto Dean’s bed, and he dove after it. The sudden movement startled Dean, who leaped up and tried to bolt. Seth did his best to answer his phone while trying to keep Dean away from the door. This was no easy task, since Dean was still quite a bit bigger and stronger than Seth.

It was Tony.

“Seth? What’s going on?” He sounded concerned.

“Mama said to stay in here but Dean’s really scared and he’s trying to leave---”

“Put me on speaker.”

Seth did as he was told.

“Dean?” Tony’s voice could now be heard.

“D-Dad?” Dean froze.

“I’m coming home, son. Mom and I are coming. You’re okay. You’ve just got to sit tight and stay where you are. It’s going to be fine. Mom’s talking to Roman right now. He’s coming back to you guys---”

Not two seconds later, they heard Roman knock on the door.

“Daddy, are you sure it’s Roman?” Seth was fighting back waves of fear. Dean retreated to his corner and sank back onto the floor, shivering harder than ever.

“I’m sure. Go ahead.” Seth heard Roman identify himself. It SOUNDED like him…

He stopped hesitating when he heard the sound of glass breaking somewhere towards the front of the house. He jerked open the door and yanked Roman in, as Dean screamed behind him.

Once Roman was in the room, Lily’s voice could also be heard as Roman put her on speaker as well.

“What was that?” Lily demanded to know.

“Mama---Mama, I think she’s in the house,” Roman whispered. Dean continued to scream.

“Shhhh Dean. Is the door locked?”

“Yes. We’re locked in Seth’s bedroom. Dean, stop. Come on, bud. Just---we’re okay.” Roman drew Dean closer, and Dean buried his head under Roman’s arm. He didn’t stop screaming though. Seth was horrified.

“Hang in there, guys. There’s a police officer on our property right now, but he knows he’s not to knock or anything. He’s going to come in and look around.”

A moment later, they heard a woman shriek somewhere in the house and all three of them jumped.

“Hurry, Mama,” Dean wailed suddenly.

“Baby. Baby, baby, baby, we’re coming. Just hang on.”

A moment later, Tony’s voice.

“I’m pulling up the driveway, guys. Just stay put. Mom’s right behind me.”

Roman was sitting beside Dean on the floor now, with one arm around his brother. Seth remained rooted where he stood, too terrified to take a step. With both phones on speaker, they could hear just a little of what was going on in the background. Then Lily’s voice.

“Talk to me, guys. Everybody okay in there?”

“We’re fine,” Roman’s voice. “We’re just scared.”

“I know. I know. It’s okay. Guys, it looks like everything is under control. The officer has Shelby. I’m coming back, okay?”

Seth nodded, then realized his mom couldn’t see him.

“Okay,” he whispered.

A moment later, there was a knock on the door.

“It’s me, guys,” came Lily’s voice through the phone.

Seth crept to the door, then hesitated.

“Is it really you, Mama?”

“It’s really me, bub. Let me in. It’s okay now.”

It sounded like her, so Seth slowly undid the lock and let the door fall open. Relief washed over him immediately when he saw Lily. He went to hug her, but was knocked out of the way by Dean, who had flew at her from the other side of the room. She caught him in a bone crushing hug, then reached an arm out for Seth too and motioned for Roman to join them.

“Oh goodness. It’s okay. It’s okay, guys. You’re okay. I’m here. Daddy and I are here. It’s okay.”

Dean was sobbing into her neck. She walked them to the edge of Seth’s bed, sat them down, but didn’t let any of them go.

“Dean,” her voice was gentle. “You’re okay, sweetie. I know she scared you, but you’re safe. Shhh….”

Dean struggled to calm down enough to speak. Seth watched as their mother ran her fingers through Dean’s wild hair.

“She said she’s taking me with her,” he finally whispered. “She said she’s taking me with her either way, and so I could make it easy and just go with her, and then she grabbed my arm and pulled on me. And...and I broke your bowl…” Tears began flowing freely again. Lily couldn’t help but laugh just a little.

“Well, first of all, I don’t care about the damn bowl, so just get that off your conscience. I can replace the bowl. I can’t replace my baby.” Dean snuggled against her and she hugged him closer.

“Second of all, she said she’s taking you with her?”

Dean nodded miserably.

“She said she’s going to take me back anyway, so I could decide whether I wanted to go through court or just go with her.”

“She’s lying. It’s not a custody hearing, baby. The most she can hope to come away with is supervised visitation and even that would only be until you turn 14 and are old enough to say you don’t want to anymore.”

“I know...I know I know I know,” Dean pressed his face into Lily’s neck. They’d been through all of this; Seth remembered. Suddenly Tony was at the door.

“You guys okay?” Their dad’s voice was gentle but his eyes held fury. Roman spoke up first.

“We’re fine, Dad, she didn’t hurt us, she just…”

“It was scary,” Seth finished. “She doesn’t get to take Dean away right? Mama says she can’t.”

“No, she can’t,” Tony agreed. “Did she say she was going to?”

All three boys nodded.

“Let me see your arm, sweetie,” their mother murmured to Dean. A light bruise was forming around his forearm.

“She did this?” Lily asked him. He nodded miserably as Lily held up his arm for his father to see.

“Okay. Come with me, guys. The police officers want you to tell them what happened, and Cassie is on her way out. I don’t know what’s going to happen next for sure, but Shelby is NOT allowed to come to this house and she knows that, so she’s in violation of her plea agreement.” He hugged Dean and Roman, then waited for Seth to approach him. Seth considered him guardedly before allowing a small hug.

“By the way, she broke a window in the kitchen. That’s how she got in the house. She didn’t get far, though. When the officers got here, she was backed against the wall, surrounded by all four dogs. And they were not happy. Even the cops couldn’t call them off. They waited until I got here.”

 

___________________________

 

Dean’s day in court went way better than any of them expected.

First, they drew Judge Malaska again, who was not at all impressed with Shelby’s antics, despite her impassioned plea to be allowed to have her son back. Dean had maturely told the judge that Shelby being sober for two years wasn’t going to erase the 11 years of misery she had put Dean through prior to this point, and Judge Malaska sided with him. Not only would Shelby not be allowed to petition for custody, she wasn’t even granted visitation, and the judge left her with the promise that if she ever approached Dean again without his parents present, he would personally see that her rights to Dean get removed.

They left the courthouse, went to get Roman and Seth, and then went to Ruby Tuesday for lunch. The boys laughed and ribbed each other and stuffed down burgers, fries, and milkshakes. Lily absolutely loved it. She’d been concerned; Dean had had a rough couple of days after Shelby had shown up at their house. He’d clung to Tony for hours. If Tony wasn’t immediately available, he’d tried to hide his face against Lily and become invisible. For days, he barely slept and when he did manage to sleep, he was plagued with awful nightmares. But lots of cuddling and closeness had eventually made him feel better. He and his brothers had spent time swimming, watching movies, and staying up all night enjoying summer. Distraction had always been the best remedy for Dean, and everything had ultimately ended up just fine.

Lily was worried about Seth’s turn, though. This wasn’t a court date to determine visitation or anything else. This was an actual trial; the trial of the people who had known and allowed Seth and several other boys to be repeatedly beaten and raped over a period of several years. These were the people who had caused Seth to come to them a broken shell of a child. Lily tried to focus on everything that was going RIGHT with Seth. He spoke now. He participated in things at the community center. He had finished school with straight A’s and glowing reports from his teachers. He was caring, compassionate, and always very in tune to the feelings of others. He required considerably less therapy than he had when he first arrived. He was also very fearful still, though, and he still didn’t want to be near Tony if Lily or Roman wasn’t around. He had nightmares far less frequently but when they did plague him, they seemed to be worse. He was thriving; anyone could see that, and Lily was so proud of him. But she worried that having to relive everything that had happened in his past would cause substantial setbacks.

They discussed it at length, and met with the District Attorney, Rose Halstead, frequently. They knew that the defense attorneys would probably try and intimidate Seth and the other boys testifying, so they went over and over that all they had to do was tell the truth and everything would be fine. Seth seemed pretty okay with it.

But as the trial date neared, he started having trouble sleeping again. He’d wake up sobbing hysterically, screaming, clawing, until he was awake enough to realize he was in his own room safe. Tony tried to help, but his presence made Seth so much worse that Lily began just laying in Seth’s room every night, hoping to cut off some of his nightmares before they began. It didn’t really work, though, and that meant she was getting even less sleep than Seth was. They were both zombies during the day, though Lily continued to drag herself to work. While their parents were gone, Dean and Roman did what they could for Seth. Both of them still had court fresh in their minds, and they remembered how hard it was.

The night before Seth was scheduled to testify, he approached his parents and it was clear he’d been crying. They had been sitting on the couch together watching Mad Men, and they sat him down on the sofa between them.

“What is it, bub?” Lily could practically feel Seth’s fear.

“Mama? Can Roman and Dean please come tomorrow? I...don’t know if I can do it without my whole family there…”

“Oh, Seth…” Lily began. “You are strong enough. But if you want your brothers there and it’s okay with them, I don’t see any reason why they can’t come. Do you Tony?”

Tony shrugged.

“Not if that’s what you guys really want,” he replied.

“It is. They promised me...they said they’d be there for me,” Seth whispered.

“You have good brothers, bub,” Lily murmured.

“I know,” Seth was quiet for a moment.

“How are you feeling about it?” Tony asked him quietly.

“A little nervous. Scared. I don’t know...like, what if I can’t do it?”

“You can do it.”

“No but...like what if I can’t? What if I get up there and suddenly I can’t talk? If I can’t tell the truth, they’ll get away with it.”

“Then you look at me and Mama,” Tony said softly. “Or you look at Dean and Roman. We’ll help you feel stronger.”

Seth leaned heavily against Lily. He was shaking and pale.

“Listen to me, bub,” she murmured. “You know they can’t hurt you right?”

The look in Seth’s eyes told her that no, he did not know that. She gathered him into her arms. It always kind of amazed Lily how small Seth could curl up; in the hospital when she’d first met him, he’d seemed much smaller than he actually was and she had been surprised the first time she’d seen him stand up. He was actually much taller than he appeared, and quite lanky. Proper nutrition and exercise had filled him out a bit, but Seth was destined to always be long and thin.

Lily ran her fingers through his curls.

“Listen to me,” she whispered. “They’ll be there. They can see you. You can see them. Know who else is gonna be there though?”

“Who?” Seth whispered back.

“Me. And Daddy. And lots and lots of other people and we are NOT going to let them hurt you anymore, Seth. And when it’s over, we’re going to bring you home and you won’t ever have to deal with them ever again. Okay?”

Seth snuggled up to his parents.

“Okay.”

Chapter Text

It was awful, but Seth did it.

He did it even with the leers of the adults who allowed him to be hurt over and over burning his eyes. It was beyond scary having to look at the people who were once supposed to protect him knowing that instead they had allowed him to be hurt and been basically okay with it. But Seth was stronger now, and every time he began to tremble, his mother squeezed his hand. He remembered that she was there beside him, and he faced them.

He did it with some of his actual rapists in the courtroom. They had all been minors themselves when they’d hurt him and several other boys, and because they’d also been abused, they weren’t being tried as adults. Seeing them brought back memories Seth didn’t even remember he’d forgotten, but every time he started to panic, his father patted his shoulder, and Seth remembered that wasn’t his life anymore, and he was safe from all of that now.

He did it even though the defense attorneys tried to pick him apart on the stand. They continually asked him about his life before the group home, reminding him over and over that he’d been abused since toddlerhood. They questioned whether he was really telling the truth, or if it was just something his mind made up. They tried to force him to walk down the path of his early childhood, no matter how often the District Attorney objected. But every time Seth felt himself start to come unglued, he closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and looked over at Roman and Dean. His brothers stared at him with determined looks and nodded encouragingly when they caught Seth’s eye. And Seth remembered that he had something to go home to now, and that they had been hurt too, and that healing together was an important thing. And Seth didn’t quit. He stayed calm and did what he needed to do.

When he was done with his testimony, the judge called a recess. Seth curled up in his parents’ arms and cried. But when court resumed, Seth sat tall between Lily and Tony, Roman and Dean. Safe in the center of his family, he watched the rest of the proceedings. And when a guilty verdict was finally read, Seth held his head high. He had done it.

They had a quiet celebration that night. His mother and father seemed to understand that Seth wouldn’t want to go out to dinner or anything like that, so instead they took him home. No one fussed over him or made a big deal. Instead Roman got out one of the big fleece blankets that their mother made and he, Dean, and Seth snuggled together under it and watched a movie. Seth leaned against Roman. Dean leaned against Seth. Their parents cooked Seth’s favorite meal for dinner, chicken piccata over pasta and roasted broccoli. He knew his mom peeked in on him occasionally, but he was content snuggled between his brothers. After they ate their parents let them swim for awhile, but before too long, Seth grew tired. He went in and took a nice long shower and curled up on his bed with Wyatt and a book. He’d been reading for awhile when his parents tapped his door.

“You okay, Seth?” Tony asked him softly, as he and Lily entered his room and came to sit on his bed.

“Yeah...yeah. I guess I just...it doesn’t feel like it’s really over,” Seth whispered.

“It’s been a long time coming,” his mother said. She offered her arms, and Seth gratefully crawled into them. Then, because he was feeling fragile and he knew she wouldn’t mind, he climbed onto her lap and pulled her hand to his hair. Ever since the day he’d met Roman at the hospital, his mother gently stroking his hair comforted Seth more than anything else. Right then, the fact that he was 13 years old meant nothing. He needed to decompress. His parents understood though. As Lily rocked him, Tony reached over and rubbed his back.

“You were really brave today, Seth,” Tony told him calmly. Seth shook his head.

“I guess. I didn’t feel brave. I was so scared, Daddy,” Seth mumbled.

“Bub...brave doesn’t mean you don’t get scared,” Lily soothed, still rocking him.

“It doesn’t?”

“No, sir,” Tony said. “Being brave means you do what’s right, even if it’s scary. You got scared and that’s okay. Believe me, Seth, we were scared too. But you didn’t back down and you didn’t give up. We’re proud of you, son. Because of you and a few other very brave boys, those people will never be allowed to harm another child. That’s something you get to own, buddy. That will always be yours, and the next time you feel scared about something, you can remember that if you were brave enough to face that, I think you could probably face about anything.”

“I couldn’t say it better, bub,” Lily said quietly into his ear. “My brave, strong little bub. You helped save people today, Seth. People who will never know it, because thanks to you, they’ll never have to. That is the epitome of bravery.”

Their words lifted Seth up. Lily and Tony stayed with him until he fell asleep, and when he woke up the next morning, he wasn’t at all surprised to wake up still wrapped in their arms. Seth had never felt so strong or so safe in his life.

 

____________________________________

 

With all of the rough stuff out of the way, the family took their final summer vacation to San Antonio to visit Lily’s family. The boys never tired of Schlitterbahn, so their parents got a multi-day family pass and they road water slides from morning until early afternoon, then went back to their grandparents’ house and rested, then went out to incredible restaurants at night. Lily had two older brothers, who were each married and had three children of their own. All nine cousins were born in about a six year span. The oldest was 16 and the youngest was 10, so they all got on fairly well together. As much fun as that was, the absolute best part was spending time with their grandparents.

Seth, Dean, and Roman absolutely LOVED Lily’s parents. They lived in an enormous house, and the pool in the backyard was the size of their kitchen at home. They had a game room in the basement with ping pong and pool and darts. Their grandparents, Nana and Granddad, routinely insisted that spoiling the children was their God-given right, so every time they came to visit, there were always presents. That wasn’t what the boys loved the most, though.

Lily’s father was a retired Air Force Colonel who’d made a fortune in oil and real estate, and her mother had come to the United States from Ireland shortly before Lily’s oldest brother, their uncle Thomas, was born. So sometimes in the evenings, Nana and Granddad would send Lily and Tony out on a date, and then they’d get the boys together and make popcorn and tell them stories. Old war stories (always embellished; they knew that, but they didn’t care); stories from Ireland; stories of their mother when she had been a child. They especially enjoyed the ones in which Nana went on about how Lily had been quite naughty.

“Oh, she was always doing something she shouldn’t,” Nana would laugh, her soft Irish accent more pronounced than ever. “She never cared to act ladylike or proper, not that we minded. She has two older brothers after all; her whole life was about keeping up with them. Why, one time, Thomas climbed a giant tree and then Shawn climbed it too. Well, your mama was not one to be left behind, because as far as she was concerned, she could do everything those boys could do only she could do it better. Then Thomas climbed down, and then Shawn climbed down, and then Lily realized she was still quite a bit smaller, so she screamed and howled up in that tree until Thomas climbed back up to get her.”

“She was as stubborn as all get out,” Granddad chimed in. “You never could convince her otherwise once she’d decided on something. She was always bringing home anyone and anything that she thought could use some help. Dogs, cats, other people. Once your Nana came home and Lily had a homeless person she’d met in town sitting at the kitchen table while she fixed him a tuna sandwich. She said she’d wanted to help and she didn’t have any tuna with her, so she brought the man home. Actually, he cleaned up quite nicely. Turned out he’d fallen on hard times, and after I talked to him, I offered him a part time job scheduling real estate visits for my business, and now he’s quite successful.”

“She’d gone off to college and one weekend she came home ranting and raving about a gentleman she had met that she referred to as a ‘useless peabrain.’ My goodness, she went on and on about how he was stuck up, full of himself, and stubborn, and she was so mad because he’d gotten cast as the lead role in Phantom of the Opera, opposite her Christine. She said, ‘Mother, I just won’t do it. I just can’t do it. There is just no chance that I’m going to kiss this idiot, even if it IS acting.’ Oh, she was so angry.” Nana laughed.

“Of course, he was no better,” Granddad picked the story up. “He was, from what we gathered, every bit as stubborn as she was and one day during rehearsal, he went ahead and kissed her anyway.”

“What happened?” Seth breathed. Of course, they all knew what happened; they’d heard the story a million times, but it never got old.

“Your mother slapped his face as hard as she could,” Nana was practically giddy. “She told that boy he’d better keep his ridiculous, slimy lips on his own ridiculous
face.”

“I don’t know when she changed her mind,” Granddad added, “but a month or so later, that boy was calling me up, telling me he wanted to marry her. And when he asked her, she said yes.”

“Sometimes, you just know,” Nana added. “It took your mother a minute, but pretty quickly, she just knew. James! Get the wedding album!”

They’d looked at the pictures of their parents almost 20 years ago, and then they looked at the ones that were more recent. Tony with his arms around Roman showing him how to aim a gun. Roman asleep on the couch with his arm around Honey Badger. Dean on his dirtbike. Roman and Dean burying Tony at the beach. Roman and Dean asleep on the couch together surrounded by Christmas wrapping. Roman curled up on the couch reading to Seth and Dean. The three of them looking over Seth’s broomstick on his birthday.

“We always knew she was meant to have a house full of dogs and cats and kids,” their Nana told them softly. “And she waited much longer than her fair share of time to get that, but the three of you...the three of you are the most precious gift your mother and father could ever have asked for. They love you so much.”

Chapter Text

School started back the end of August, and with it, football for Roman. Dean was proud of his brother, but he missed him terribly.

For one, Roman was in high school now, which meant that Dean was now the oldest at Creek Ridge Middle School. Nevermind that Seth was in the same grade and even taking an advanced English course. Dean was still older, and that was a lot of responsibility. It was hard knowing that Roman wasn’t there if they needed him, although they had never actually needed him for anything regarding school the year before. That didn’t matter though; you just never knew when something might come up.

For another, Roman no longer rode the community center bus on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, nor did their mother pick him up on Mondays and Thursdays. He had football practice instead. Most Fridays Roman never even made it home before the games. The whole family went to every single home game, and quite a few of the away games, but it wasn’t the same. It wasn’t that the games weren’t fun; they were great. Dean and Seth made signs for Roman, jumped around and screamed like loons, and gorged themselves on all the hotdogs and nachos they wanted. They just never actually got to spend any real time with Roman himself. Every time he took the field he’d find them in the stands and salute them, so they would know he’d found them. But he had to ride the football bus to and from the games, and he’d often not arrive home until long after Dean and Seth had gone to sleep.

Plus, he spent most of his Saturdays and Sundays catching up on missed school work. Dean was glad he loved football, but everything else about it sucked.

Dean tried to immerse himself in Motocross, practicing riding his bike on the track he and Tony had constructed. He tried to teach Seth how to ride, but that had been a disaster. He even tried doing his homework (he hated it, but his parents did have a few rules). The stress was starting to weigh on him. He couldn’t focus on anything. He began fidgeting almost constantly, and struggling to sleep. He didn’t know what to do. It felt like everything was spiraling out of control, but he didn’t know how to tell his parents.

Then one night, he woke up screaming uncontrollably. And he had no idea why. He couldn’t remember the nightmare, or if there had even been one. His mother got to him quickly and hugged him close, but Dean couldn’t be consoled. He tried to breathe. He tried to let Lily hold him and soothe him. But the anxiety felt like a heavy weight constricting him, and that made the panic even worse. It happened again the next night, and the next, each time getting worse and worse. By the fourth night, the sun was coming up by the time he fell back into a fitful, restless sleep.

The first thing Dean noticed when he woke up was that his room was full of sunlight. The second was that his father was stretched out beside him in his bed, his arm loosely draped across Dean’s side. The third was that the bedside clock read 11:22, which meant he wasn’t at school. Dean rolled onto his back and Tony stirred.

“Dad?” Dean whispered. His head felt like it had a cinder block sitting on top of it.

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m here, buddy,” came Tony’s mumbled reply. Dean felt his father tighten his arm around his waist.

“Why are we home? Am I sick?”

“Well...you tell me, Dean. You had quite a night last night.” Tony answered.

“I didn’t...I don’t...I don’t know why that happened,” Dean responded softly. He really didn’t. To be honest, it scared him a little. Even Seth knew exactly why he woke up screaming, even if he didn’t want to talk about it afterwards.

“Shh. It’s okay, buddy. You’re under a lot of stress lately, huh?”

Dean wasn’t sure how his father knew that. It wasn’t like he made a habit of discussing it. But since it was out in the open, he decided not to lie.

“I guess. A little. I just...I just miss Roman. And school is getting harder, and I just want to ride my bike and forget about all of it, but I can’t concentrate. It’s like...like my brain won’t shut off. Is something wrong with me, Dad?” The words spilled out of Dean.

“Wrong with you? Nah. You’re a teenage boy with a lot going on and sometimes that’s a little hard. Sometimes you just need a little help. Dean...Mom and I talked this morning. We were thinking maybe it’s time for you to start seeing a counselor.”

“What? Why? No way!” Dean cried. “You just said there’s nothing wrong with me!”

“There’s not, buddy. Nothing at all. It isn’t about something being wrong with you, Dean. You’ve spent the last four nights terrified of something even you aren’t sure about. And look at you right now; I can tell you’re miserable. You’re exhausted, bud.”

“So what! I don’t want to...Daddy, please don’t make me…” Dean couldn’t help it; he started to cry. Tony hugged him tighter.

“Look, Dean...let’s just relax for now okay? Mom will be home in just a little bit and we’ll sit down and talk. Everything is going to be fine, buddy. You hungry?”

Dean nodded; miserable or not, he was starving.

Tony made them both huge ham sandwiches with lettuce, tomato, pickles, cheese, mayo, and lots of spicy mustard. Dean ate like it was the last time he was ever going to get the chance. They sat at the kitchen table together, eating, gently teasing each other, and then Dean heard the garage door open and the telltale sound of barking dogs. His mother was home.

“I suppose you think I need to be hauled off to the crazy doctor too?” The accusatory tone in Dean’s voice would have made Lily smile if he hadn’t been so serious.

“Ah. I see you went ahead and told him,” Lily raised an eyebrow at Tony. “That went well, I trust?”

“STOP making fun of me!” Dean wasn’t really angry, but he was more than a little annoyed. He hated when his parents made decisions for him, and it seemed like they were pretty set on this.

“Sweetie. I’m sorry. I’m not making fun of you; we’re just...you know what? I’m going to go change into some actual clothes and take these heels off. Why don’t you and Daddy get us all something to drink and we’ll talk together okay?”

She heard Dean’s resigned sigh.

“Fine. Just...fine.” He stalked to the kitchen.

 

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Fifteen minutes later found the three of them sitting on the sofa together. Lily and Tony were drinking iced tea; Dean, a tangerine Gatorade. Lily ran her fingers through Dean’s hair.

“I don’t know why it’s suddenly so hard,” Dean’s whispered confession came without any prying from his parents. “I don’t know why I keep waking up at night the way I do. I just...I don’t know.”

“Why don’t you tell us what you DO know?” Lily’s voice was soft. “Tell us what you’re feeling.”

“I---I miss Roman,” Dean began. “He’s never around anymore. I feel like I’m the oldest now and I hate it. School keeps getting harder. It’s like...it’s like no matter how hard I try to think about stuff, I can’t focus on it. I don’t know what to do. I feel like I’m stuck.”

“What do you feel like you’re stuck between, buddy?” Tony’s voice was as soft as Lily’s. Lily watched him squeeze Dean’s hand.

“I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t---” Lily could feel Dean becoming anxious. She took his other hand and then rubbed his back.

“Dean. Sweetie. This is what we mean. You don’t have to feel stuck. This is why we think it might be good for you to talk to someone who can help you feel unstuck.”

“But why can’t you help me? Why do I have to talk to a stranger? Why is it such a big deal? Seth still wakes up screaming all the time!”

“And Seth goes to counseling, Dean, but that’s not the point. We’re not talking about Seth here. We’re talking about what is best for Dean.” Lily kissed his cheek. “Sweetie, what can it hurt? Just to try?”

“Yeah, buddy,” Tony spoke up. “Don’t you want some relief? There’s nothing to be ashamed of, Dean. We’re not ashamed of you. We’re very proud of you, and of everything you’ve already overcome. But it’s going to be a process, and part of growing up is accepting when you need a little more than what you’re getting and allowing it.”

Dean sighed again.

“Just to be clear, am I actually getting a choice here?” Lily and Tony looked at each other.

“You…” Lily chose her words carefully. Giving the boys the ammunition to make the right decisions was always so important to her and Tony, but this...this was not going to be negotiable. “Doing nothing to help you feel better is not a choice, no. This is the best suggestion that Daddy and I have. If you can think of a better one, we’ll
be very happy to listen to what you have to say.”

“So you’re going to make me do this either way.” Dean sounded defeated.

“No. Of course not,” said Tony. “What we aren’t going to do is sit back and watch you hurt like this if there’s something we can try. And like Mom said, if you have a suggestion, just tell us. In the meantime, we have to do SOMETHING. You know?”

Dean just nodded.

“Yeah…” Lily hugged him tight.

“Here’s the deal. You go for eight weeks. That’s just eight hours, sweetie, that’s not that much time. In eight weeks, if you’re feeling completely better or if you’re feeling like it hasn’t helped at all, we re-evaluate. What do you think?”

“I think it sucks,” Dean said softly. “But...I don’t have a better idea. And...and relief sounds good.”

Tony smiled at him.

“I’m proud of you, son. I’m proud of you making a choice to try and help yourself feel better instead of allowing yourself to keep feeling worse.”

Lily smiled too.

“Mom? Dad?” Dean asked softly. “Do we have to tell Roman and Seth?”

“That’s your call, sweetie,” Lily said.

“Well...maybe I might but...not yet. Okay?”

“Okay, Dean. That’s okay.”

 

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Ten weeks later, Dean completed the agreed upon number of therapy sessions. He hadn’t managed to keep it a secret from Roman and Seth for very long, but as predicted, they’d been completely supportive. He’d begun sleeping better again, his confidence returned, and his grades even improved. However, the most impressive part was that when he was given the option of reconsidering counseling, he didn’t even hesitate to tell his parents that he wanted to keep going, because he wanted to keep getting better. Tony couldn’t remember a time when he was more proud.

There was a lot to be proud of, actually.

The Creek Ridge Colts made it to the state championship. Roman was the only freshman on the team to play first string. The title game took place in Dallas the Saturday before Thanksgiving, so Lily and Tony opted to take the boys up for an extended weekend, before driving down to San Antonio for the holiday. Nana and Granddad drove up to surprise Roman. Everyone wore their Creek Ridge jerseys with “Reigns” printed on the back, and Dean and Seth made their trademark signs.

The game was incredible. Roman was amazing; the whole team played well, and the Colts won 38-7. Once the coach was done with the kids, they checked Roman out and Tony treated everyone to a nice dinner at McCormick and Schmick’s. The restaurant was at NorthPark Mall, so after eating, they let the boys wander around, and Tony and Lily joined arms and went for a little stroll themselves.

“You know, it’s past time to start talking about Christmas for the boys…” Lily said. Tony groaned.

It wasn’t that Tony didn’t like Christmas; he loved it. He loved picking a tree, decorating it together, making homemade eggnog (nonalcoholic for the boys, of course), and he absolutely loved the twinkle in his children’s eyes on Christmas morning. At 14, nearly 14, and 13, they were too old for Santa, but they still were just like little boys when they woke up December 25. The year before had been a little too much for Seth; he’d been completely overwhelmed. But he had come SO FAR since then that Tony was still pretty excited for the upcoming holiday.

Tony didn’t mind giving input for their gifts, either, but he absolutely hated Christmas shopping. Usually they just agreed on gifts for the boys and then Lily handled the rest, and they each decided what to get their own parents. Shopping for Lily was the hardest part. Anybody could buy a bunch of clothes, perfume, and all of that stuff, but Tony always wanted to get creative with Lily’s present, and he’d done such a good job in the years prior that he was running out of ideas. But he decided to worry about that later.

After Thanksgiving, the thing Tony was maybe the most proud of happened with Seth.

It had been over a year since Seth had joined the family, and the progress he’d made was incredible. He no longer hid from everything. He loved to participate in any activity Tony and his brothers invited him along on, and they spent all kinds of time together. Tony consistently told Seth how much he was loved and how proud he was of him. Seth was receptive and often even returned the sentiment. Considering in the beginning Tony hadn’t even been able to be in the same room as the boy, this all seemed positive and Tony was glad for it. The problem fell when Lily wasn’t around.

If Lily was home, all was right in Seth’s world. He seemed happy and confident and was thrilled to play ball with the guys, or go fishing, or just hang out and talk about guy stuff. One Sunday morning, Lily had stood in the bathroom doorway and laughed when she realized that Tony and the boys were all standing in front of the mirror while Tony taught them to shave. Seth even didn’t mind when Tony heaped affection on him; he no longer shimmied away from a hug or a pat on the back. He still loved to be read to eventhough he was 13 years old and quite capable of reading to himself, and he liked it when Tony came into his room in the evenings and laid on his bed and read a few chapters of whatever the book du jour happened to be.

But if Lily wasn’t nearby, everything changed. Seth became sullen and anxious, often retiring to his bedroom to be by himself. If Tony tried to talk to him, he’d hide under his blankets and wait silently until he was left alone. Even Roman couldn’t coax him out. He seemed to be in a battle with himself; once Lily returned, Seth would often come out of hiding and come and sit next to Tony and lay his head on his shoulder, almost an unspoken apology. Tony always made sure to wait until Seth approached but then gently invited him in and gave him a gentle hug. Most of the time, Seth was content to just stay there, and every so often he fell asleep on his father. It definitely wasn’t that Seth didn’t like Tony or even that he didn’t love him; fear was the issue, without question. His team of therapists reassured Tony and Lily that this was okay. They said that what they really needed to focus on was the positive things and the steps forward, because eventually Seth would get there. Tony knew that and he had all the time and patience in the world, but it hurt him to see Seth afraid, and it really hurt him to know that he was the one Seth was afraid of.

Plus, he really really wanted to take the boys camping over spring break, and where they were at right now, there was just no way. He knew he could make the offer and allow Seth to decline, and just take Roman and Dean, but he wanted all of his boys there, and Lily deserved some quiet time.

Knowing all of this, Tony was proud when Seth approached him after Thanksgiving and asked for help with a school project. Lily was always the go-to for school stuff, since Tony was often out of town and not able to be much help anyway. But Seth clearly wanted his father’s help for this.

“It’s the science fair, Dad. I want to think of something really awesome, but I don’t even have a good idea. Will you help me?”

Of course Tony would help him. Tony would have shot the moon for that boy.

For three nights, the two of them spent hours pouring over the Internet. Seth was determined to find something that no one else would think of. Finally, he settled on using mechanical parts and Legos to construct a small robot that could detect carbon monoxide and move to wherever in someone’s home that the fumes were the strongest. Tony was impressed. He knew there were carbon monoxide detectors available, and he knew that most people only had one, so the gas would have to reach it before it would go off and warn them. If the robot could detect it and find it early, it could keep people from getting sick. So the first thing they did was go to Lowe’s and buy an inexpensive detector so that Seth could take it apart.

Every night they worked diligently. They constructed the robot, or rather Seth did; Tony was there to advise, but Seth did the majority of the work. Tony couldn’t believe how good Seth was at thinking all of these things through. He did love to tinker with stuff though. It occurred to Tony that he needed to do stuff like this with Seth more often. Not only did he want to build up Seth’s trust...he was also legitimately enjoying himself.

Seth’s project took first place at the fair. No one was shocked by this. Tony, once again, was so proud of his boy. When Seth stepped forward to accept his award, no on in the room was clapping harder than Tony.

That year, Tony went out to the Lego Store and bought a Christmas present for Seth himself: Hogwarts Castle. And Lily was more than thrilled with the beautiful mother’s necklace that he had crafted with the words Kiddo, Sweetie, and Bub etched into it, along with each of the boys’ birthstones.

Chapter Text

Roman and his brothers were pretty excited when their father bought them a tent. He wanted to go camping soon, he explained, and he figured it might be good to start out by sleeping in the backyard to try it out. Roman had no arguments. He’d always wanted to go camping, and so had Dean. Seth...well, Seth was a little more reserved about it, but one thing Roman loved about Seth was that he was always willing to at least TRY a new experience, even if he was uncomfortable with the idea in the beginning. Sometimes it worked; sometimes it didn’t, but the main thing was he made an effort. Roman knew that when it came to camping, Seth’s biggest worry was being away from Lily overnight. Lily was rarely apart from them. Dean and Roman had spent the night at friends’ houses and even spent a week in San Antonio with Nana and Granddad one summer while Lily and Tony had stayed back in Houston working. Roman suspected they’d had a good time on their own, though Dean insisted they must’ve been bored out of their minds without their boys to keep them entertained.

Seth had never, ever spent the night away from Lily, though. He rarely needed her at night anymore, but the idea that she wouldn’t be there if he DID---Roman knew it overwhelmed him. He figured it’d be okay so long as he was there too though. The first attempt at sleeping outdoors ended with Seth creeping back into the house in the middle of the night. Tony woke up to a text from Lily that said “I’ve got bub” and they realized that Seth was indeed no longer in the tent.

“I got cold,” Seth had muttered when they asked him about it, staring down at his feet with an unreadable expression. This excuse was unlikely; it was in the low 40’s outside at night, sure, but they’d been under a pile of thermal blankets and Seth had been sharing an air mattress with Dean.

Dean and Roman had a blast, though. So a few weeks later they did it again, this time going into the woods a ways before setting up camp. The second time, Seth didn’t go at all, but when they came back, he’d looked forlorn when Dean and Roman went on and on about how much fun it was. It hadn’t occurred to Roman that maybe Seth really did want to participate and just couldn't bring himself to do it, but after seeing the look on his face---Roman sat him down so they could have a talk.

“You can come with us. It’s okay,” Roman said calmly to his little brother. Seth tensed and his gaze immediately fell to the floor.

“I didn’t feel like---” Seth began but Roman didn’t let him finish.

“Seth. Look. It’s okay; it’s hard, I get it. But I’m going to be there too and you’ll be okay. You will, honest. It’s so much fun, Seth. Just...just give it a try, okay? If you stay all night and you hate it, then when we go to a real campsite no one will mess with you if you want to stay home.”

Seth sighed.

“Okay. Next time I’ll go.”

“Don’t go because I want you to go, dude. If you don’t want to, you don’t want to. I just don’t think you know what you’re missing. Think about it. That’s all I’m asking,” Roman didn’t want to pressure his brother, but they weren’t Roman, Dean, and Seth without Seth.

 

________________________________

 

Seth thought about it. He thought about it some more. And then, just for good measure, he thought about it again.

He discussed it in counseling. He wrote about it for an English assignment. And when he was tired of waffling, he decided to talk to his mother.

“What’s up, bub?” Lily was in the kitchen peeling potatoes to mash for dinner.

“Nothing. What’s for dinner?” Seth waited to broach the subject.

“Baked fried chicken, green beans, mashed potatoes and gravy, and biscuits,” Lily replied. Seth’s mouth watered.

“How can chicken be both baked and fried?”

“It’s breaded like fried chicken, but I cook it in the oven instead of in oil. I think it tastes better. Want to help?”

Seth loved to help cook. He was getting really good at it, too. Plus, it gave his hands something to do while he talked to his mom. Lily handed him a potato.

“Mom?”

“Yeah, my love?” Lily continued to peel, but listened intently.

“Do you ever just want a break?”

“A break from?”

“Us.”

Lily set her potato down and turned to Seth.

“I’m not sure what you’re asking me, bub,” she answered.

“Because you’re never gone or anything. Dad goes away on business a lot, but you’ve never taken a trip or anything like that.”

“Bub, are you asking me if I’m tired of you?” There was confusion in her eyes.

“No. Yes. I don’t...maybe. I don’t know. I’m just asking if you ever want a break from me.”

“Why on earth would you think that, Seth Rollins?” His mother sounded incredulous.

“Because...because I’m...I’m not normal. Not like Dean and Roman. You always have to be with me, and I was just wondering whether...you know.”

“Oh bub. Oh Seth. Come here.” Lily wrapped Seth into the tightest embrace he ever remembered receiving.

“Come here, bub. Let’s talk.” Seth let his mother guide him to the living room, where she pulled him down onto her lap in the recliner. Her grip on him never softened. Seth felt himself curling up in her arms. Despite his long, lanky body, Seth was still the smallest of the three boys, and he fit in against his mom pretty perfectly.

“Okay. Where is this coming from, Seth?”

“I just...you’ve been with me every single night since I came home,” Seth began.

“I know that. So?”

“So that’s a lot of nights, Mama.”

“Maybe. But part of being a mother is being there for my boys.”

“Except Roman and Dean don’t get nervous if they have to stay with Dad,” Seth whispered.

“Baby boy,” Lily began slowly. “Your dad and I know---we’ve known from the very beginning---that it was going to take a very long time, maybe even years, for you to be completely comfortable with him. And we knew that while we work on it, I’ll be the one to take care of some of the stuff you need. We knew what we were getting when we opened the box, Seth. We knew exactly who we were getting. We chose you anyway because we’re okay with it. So to answer your question, no. I do not want a break from you. I want you to grow and be healthy and happy and strong, and I want to be by your side to help you get there. And it doesn’t matter how long that takes. Nor does it matter if it’s you; I feel the same way about your brothers.”

It took a minute for Seth to respond, because he was so overcome with love for his mother that he didn’t know what to say. The he answered,

“I want to go camping with Dad and Roman and Dean, Mama. I’m tired of being scared. But I don’t know what to do.”

“Seth, you know Dad wants you to come with them but he’s not going to have any fun if you don’t. If you want to go you should go, but you can’t do it for him, baby.”

“I know…”

“Seth? Let me ask you something. What’s the worst thing that will happen if you go with them?”

Seth sighed.

“I don’t know, Mom. I guess I just...need to try it. Right?”

“It sounds like you want to. But like I said, Sethie, you have to do it because it’s something you want. Not for Daddy or the boys. Or me. For you.”

“I guess. Mom? What WOULD you do if you had a whole weekend without us?”

“Oh...I don’t know. There honestly isn’t anything I can do without you guys that I couldn’t do with you here. Though a few of my girlfriends do keep on me to go to a spa in Dallas with them, so maybe I’d do that. I really don’t know. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a girls’ night out. That’s not because of you, though. That’s been since before Dean.”

“Maybe you should do that,” Seth said slowly. “Otherwise you’d be all alone in this big house. I wouldn’t want to think of you all alone…”

“Then maybe I will. You know. So that you don’t have to worry about me.”

“Hey MOM!” Dean’s voice cut through their discussion. “What’s for dinner! I’m starving!”

Lily looked at Seth and winked; dinner had gone completely forgotten while they’d been sitting there together. She kissed Seth’s forehead.

“Order pizza!” Lily called back to Dean. “Any kind you want. Tell Daddy I had better things to do than cook tonight!”

She kissed Seth’s forehead again.

“I love you, bub. You don’t even know how much.”

Seth knew though. He knew exactly how much, and he loved her back tenfold.

 

________________________________

 

On the third attempt, Seth joined Roman, Dean, and Tony in the woods. He did great. He slept all night and seemed to enjoy everything they did. Roman was proud and told his brother so. Seth just blushed.

Over spring break, they loaded all of their equipment into the back of the Escalade. There was the tent, air mattresses, a charcoal grill, blankets, water, coolers of food, duffel bags of extra clothes, and everything else Tony could think of. They drove out east of Dallas to a campsite with a lake and lots of hiking trails. As soon as they got there and finished pitching the tent, they all went down to the dock and fished. It was awesome; no one caught much, but the goofing off, horsing around, and just general guy time was way fun. Even Seth seemed completely content.

The first night, Tony built a fire while the boys rounded up four long sticks. He showed them how to roast a marshmallow over the open flame and then create a deliciously sticky s’more. They all went to bed with gooey faces, full bellies, and happy hearts.

The next morning it rained.

It was okay; the tent repelled water, but it prevented them from spending much time outdoors and the thunder didn’t do a whole lot for Seth’s morale, or Dean’s either, for that matter. Plus, while the tent kept out the rain, it didn’t do much to keep the damp chill at bay. However, Tony broke out the decks of cards and they spent the morning playing 500, gin rummy, and Spite & Malice, and actually had a pretty good time. The rain stopped and the sun came up by noon, so they soon shed their sweats and hoodies and donned sunscreen, and went on a long hike. They saw several deer and came across a creek with a dam across it that could only be from a beaver. Then Dean saw one swimming around, and all three boys squealed with delight. They took off their shoes and waded in just a little, then began splashing each other until they were all good and soaked. Then they headed back to camp.

The campsite had community showers, so they bathed (Seth as quickly as humanly possible) and got into dry clothes, before returning to camp, where Tony grilled hamburgers and baked beans on the charcoal grill. They feasted, complete with more s’mores, before getting the blankets out, sitting around the campfire, and telling ridiculous ghost stories, the kind that are more silly than scary. When they ran out of those, they just talked about life. Tony asked them where they’d like to take vacations that summer.

“Galveston!” Seth spoke up immediately. Tony laughed.

“You get a mulligan there, buddy. Galveston is a given. We share that house after all. It’ll be nice this summer, not to have to schedule everything around court. Where else would you guys like to go? If you could go anywhere?”

“Maybe...maybe Florida?” Dean wondered.

“Florida’s on the table,” Tony grinned. “I know you guys are a little old for Disney but Mom and I were thinking about the Universal Orlando Resort. The only thing is, summer’s kind of a bad time for that so we basically figured on going there over Christmas break.”

Seth breathed in sharply.

“But...they have...the Wizarding World of Harry Potter!” He grinned, and Tony grinned back.

“I know. That’s not an accident, buddy. But back to summer, now. You guys are killing me. Where’s someplace you’ve always wanted to go?”

“Ummm…” Roman was stumped. “California?”

“Got plans for that too, but not this summer. I’ll give you a clue; there’s a certain ballpark you’ve all said you want to---”

Tony didn’t get to finish his sentence, as all three boys shouted “Chicago!”

Their dad laughed.

“That’s right. We’re going to take a vacation to Chicago as soon as school is out. Cubs tickets, Navy Pier, Lake Michigan, and anything else you can think of.”

The boys were ecstatic; they’d all been jonesing for a trip to Wrigley Field. They knew it was one of their mother’s favorite places of all time. That night, they slept soundly, and when they woke up they were happy. They went fishing again, and had a little more luck, though they threw everything back. Unfortunately, another storm rolled in around 3, and it didn’t show any signs of letting up. Seth hid under the blankets on the air mattress with Dean, as Roman rubbed both their backs and tried to comfort them. Tony kept looking out the tent. It was absolutely pouring outside. Roman could see his father was thinking hard. Then he came and sat on the other air mattress across from them.

“Okay, guys,” he began. “It’s decision time.”

“What decision,” came Dean’s muffled response from under the blanket. Just then a loud clap of thunder made Seth squeal. Roman doubled his efforts to soothe his brother.

“We can wait this out, but radar says it’s going to go on for quite awhile. We can pile into the Escalade and try to wait it out there. Or...we could load up and go find a hotel…”

“Dad, isn’t that kind of copping out?” Roman wanted to know.

“Oh, it’s totally copping out, but let’s be real. We can only play so many cards, Dean and Seth are scared, we’re all kind of miserable, and we can’t cook anything if we
can’t start the grill. So I’m kind of okay with copping out, bud. What do you guys think?”

Seth’s trembling pretty much spoke for him, Dean muttered his agreement, and Roman nodded his head. Tony grinned.

“It’s unanimous, then. Come on, Men. Let’s flatten the air mattresses. I’ll back the Escalade up as close as I can and we’ll start packing it up. Stuff whatever you can into your bags, okay?”

They ended up driving all the way into Dallas, and getting two rooms at the Embassy Suites in Frisco. The day after they arrived, they called Lily and asked her to drive up and join them. As fun as it had been roughing it with their dad, they all agreed that spending some family time in Dallas was pretty fun too, and none of the three boys argued when Tony proclaimed that next time they decided to get back to nature, he was going to rent a camper.

 

_____________________________

 

Eventhough the camping trip hadn’t gone exactly according to plan, Seth really enjoyed it, and he was pleased that he had made it several nights without his mother and absolutely nothing bad had happened. He knew his dad was proud too because when he’d left on Sunday for Washington, he’d pulled Seth aside and offered a hug.

“You did good, bub,” he had said. It made Seth happy.

Seth was thinking about all of this as he made his way along a path through the woods with Wyatt the next day. There was still one more week of spring break, and Seth intended to fully enjoy it. Dean and Roman were about 200 yards ahead of him, and they had already crossed a low, small bridge over a creek when Seth arrived at it. Seth hopped up and began to dart across---when his left leg crashed through it, causing his arm to slide through as well when he fell.

Seth was beyond stuck. His leg was down so low he could feel the water touching the tip of his left sneaker. His right arm and leg were flat to the bridge, and he had no room to maneuver. He hollered for Roman and Dean, but they were far enough ahead that they couldn’t quite hear him. So Seth braced himself against the bridge and slowly managed to pull his arm back up. Once it was free, Seth flexed it. It didn’t seem injured. His relief was short-lived, though, when he realized that there, just below his elbow, was a massive black widow spider.

Seth shrieked and waved his arm around. The spider went flying, but Seth had no idea where it landed. He was freaking out now, screaming bloody murder for his brothers and doing a good job of scraping up his leg. As he pulled, he noticed another hideous widow, or maybe it was the same one, clinging to his lower leg. He frantically tried to shake it, but he could barely move. Just then strong hands grabbed him under his arms
and he felt himself be lifted straight up. He was spun around and found himself staring into Roman’s blue-grey eyes. Seth flung himself into his brother’s arms. Roman looked Seth over.

“Come on, little brother,” Roman said softly. “Let’s go back home so I can doctor your leg. Mom’s gonna kill us.”

Seth looked down. From his thigh to his ankle, his left leg was scraped and bleeding. At the top of the wound, a ring of scraped skin from where he had struggled in the hole was also bleeding and dirty. Spiders forgotten, Seth limped after Roman back to the house.

Dean came racing up on his bike moments later.

“Oh good, you found him! What happened, Seth? We heard you screaming but we weren’t sure where you---fuck, man, what happened to your leg?”

Seth knew he was a miserable mess; his entire leg throbbed painfully, which made it difficult to walk. He dripped blood in a trail after him. Roman was right; their mom was going to be mad. When they got to the back porch, Roman began to strip Seth of his shirt, and as he did, he leaped back with a yell.

A third black widow, even bigger than the first two, came crawling out of Seth’s t-shirt.

Dean helpfully squashed it, then nearly gagged at the mess it made.

“Seth, dude, let me see. Did it bite you?” Roman began inspecting Seth’s midsection. Seth shrugged. Right then he didn’t really care; he knew widows were venomous, but he was already in agonizing pain from his scraped up arm and leg.

“Let me know if you start to feel funny. Okay?” Roman demanded, and Seth nodded. Roman told Dean to go get some clean towels from the laundry room, and then he wrapped one around Seth’s bleeding leg.

“Come on,” he said soothingly to his brother. “Let’s get you to the bathroom.”

Roman put Seth into the shower first, instructing him to wash his hair and rinse all the dirt off. Once he was done, Roman sat on the edge of the tub and washed Seth’s wounds with soap and water. It burned terribly, and Seth fought to keep the tears in his eyes from overflowing. While Roman helped him clean up, Dean searched their parents’ medicine cabinet and came into their bathroom with spray antiseptic and a large roll of soft gauze. Roman carefully dried Seth’s arm and leg first, then sprayed some antiseptic onto the scrapes. It stung, but Seth managed not to cry out. Roman’s hands were gentle as he wrapped the gauze over the spray. He helped Seth to his room and helped him in to some loose basketball shorts, then helped him out to the couch. Dean was on the phone with their mother at that point.

“No, Roman did that already. No, we did that already too. And that. And that. And---Mom, quit gushing, we know what to do in an emergency---Tylenol? Okay. How many can he take? Yeah. Yeah, okay, sounds good. You are? I’ll ask them.”

Dean turned to his brothers.

“Mom says we’ve done everything right, and to give Seth some Tylenol and put ice on his leg and arm, and do we want anything from Panera? She’s leaving the office soon.”

“Broccoli soup” Seth said at the exact time Roman muttered, “Bacon turkey Bravo.”

Dean continued to talk to their mother while Roman began making ice bags wrapped in plenty of towels and applying them over Seth’s bandages. Dean came back and offered Seth two Tylenol and a glass of water. He took them gratefully.

Everything still hurt, but just knowing that he was safe with his big brothers helped Seth immensely. He rested his head on a pillow and closed his eyes and waited for their mother to come home. Eventually he dozed off, though he couldn’t have slept long, and the next thing he knew, his mom was kneeling at his side.

“Oh, Sethie,” she murmured. He couldn’t help himself; he began to cry then. She helped him sit up and gently cradled him against her.

“Are you hurting a lot, bub?” Lily rubbed his back slowly and Seth considered the question.

“About...about a six, I guess,” he finally answered.

“Okay,” Lily didn’t stop rubbing his back. “Let’s go into the kitchen and have some lunch and afterwards I’ll take a look, okay?” Seth just nodded.

He ate his soup silently, listening to the conversation going on but not joining in. He felt tired and sore, and whether or not Dean needed new sneakers already didn’t really matter to him. After awhile his mother looked over at him.

“You okay, bub?” Lily asked him softly.

“I’m just...tired. And it hurts,” Seth muttered miserably.

“Okay. Come on. Let’s go to your bedroom and have a look.”

Seth sighed.

“Okay.”

Lily guided him to his bed and laid a few towels down before helping him lay down and unwrapping the gauze. She inspected the scrapes gently.

“Roman did a good job of wrapping these,” she commented.

“Roman washed them in the shower and wrapped them up. Dean found the spray and the gauze and he gave me Tylenol,” Seth informed her.

“They both did good. What did he wash it with?”

“Soap and water. Whatever’s in there. Ivory, maybe.”

“Well, bub, I have to admit, you guys handled this as well as I would’ve. I’m proud of all three of you. I’m gonna spray the spray again, and I want you to lay down for awhile. Let your leg get some air and you get some rest.”

“Will you lay with me?”

“Sure. Wanna watch a movie?”

“Okay.” Seth snuggled against his mother. He was feeling comfortable and sleepy as she wrapped an arm around him gently. As he dozed in and out, he completely forgot to tell her about the spiders.

Seth’s whole body was sore when he woke up the next morning. His head hurt too. He had relaxed all afternoon the day before, and his mother had re-wrapped his leg before he went to bed, where he slept fairly well, but the next morning, everything just ached. He groaned as he tried to move. Overcome by his aching body, he flopped back against the pillows and called for his mother. He got Dean instead. His brother appeared in the doorway.

“Mom went to work, Seth. She gave us a list of things to do when you wake up. Does it hurt?”

Seth nodded.

“I’m so stiff,” he whispered. “It’s hard to move.”

Dean sat next to him and helped him sit up.

“She said since you fell pretty hard, you might be sore. She said to give you more Tylenol with breakfast and just relax today. And alternate ice and heat. So Roman and I were thinking---wanna get out the air mattresses, make a fort, and have a Harry Potter movie marathon?”

That sounded fine to Seth; he had to admit, he was thankful for how his brothers seemed content to take care of him. Dean helped him to his feet and to the kitchen, where Roman was taking a pan of pizza rolls out of the oven. Seth raised his eyebrows.

Roman grinned.

“I tried scrambled eggs, but they burned,” he explained.

After breakfast, Dean and Roman put together the air mattresses and constructed a fort of blankets, then ran a heating pad into it and coaxed Seth inside. Despite the pain he was in, he curled up with the warmth of the heating pad on his leg and found a comfy spot. Roman laid right behind him and Dean threw a blanket over them. Seth was warm, comfortable, and safe. It didn’t take long for him to doze off.

He woke up with a terrible headache. Dean was gone. Roman was still nestled in the blanket cocoon with him, reading. Seth’s whole body was still sore and cramping, but the heating pad was definitely helping. He whimpered a little as he tried to turn towards his brother.

“Just lay still,” Roman put his book down and wrapped his arm around Seth. “Feeling okay?”

“Head hurts. Sore,” mumbled Seth. Roman looked down at him.

“Want more Tylenol?” Roman asked and Seth nodded.

“Dean! More Tylenol!” Roman called. Dean showed up at the opening of the fort.

“Seth? Doing okay?” He handed the pill bottle to Roman, who got two pills out and offered them to Seth with more water. Seth swallowed the medicine and snuggled down into his nest again.

“Mom will be home soon,” Roman patted Seth’s shoulder.

“I thought she had to work until 5,” Seth groggily replied.

“She did. You’ve been asleep all day,” Roman informed him. Seth groaned.

“Seth...are you sure you’re okay?” Dean’s voice now, concerned and caring. Seth considered the question. His head was pounding. Although the heating pad was helping with overall achiness, he was still sore. And his left arm...he was beginning to think he’d sprained it when he fell yesterday and it went through the bridge. Pain burned up and down and it was hard to bend his elbow. Seth felt Roman’s hand smooth up over his side, under his t-shirt, and he winced when his brother hit a tender area there as well. Roman pulled his shirt up and cursed softly under his breath.

“Seth? Did you tell Mom about the spider?”

It took Seth a moment to register what Roman was even talking about.

“No, I...I forgot all about that. Why?” Seth asked.

“Because,” said Roman slowly, “I think you have a bite.”

 

_____________________________

 

Dean met Lily at the door when she came home.

“Mom! You gotta look at Seth! I think a spider laid eggs in his stomach!”

Lily rolled her eyes at her middle son.

“Laid eggs in his---Dean? Don’t you think maybe you’re being a tad dramatic?”

“No way, Mom! He had a black widow there yesterday and now he’s got a big white lump and it’s red all down the---” Lily interrupted Dean before he could finish.

“What? He had a black widow on him?”

“Yeah, when we pulled him out of the bridge and brought him back, Roman was looking at his leg and a HUGE black widow crawled out of his shirt. I squished it. That was gross,” said Dean helpfully.

Lily tried to bite back her impatience.

“Was anyone planning on telling me this?”

“I’m telling you now, and anyway, I didn’t know Seth didn’t tell you already until a little bit ago.”

Lily heaved a huge sigh.

“Well, let’s take a look.”

Dean led Lily into the living room, where she had to admit, she was impressed by the fort Dean and Roman had made to help keep their little brother comfortable and feeling safe. She could see Roman and Seth inside. Seth was flushed and shaking, and Lily realized with a sinking feeling that he even looked feverish. She kicked her shoes off and knelt down, and brushed her hand over Seth’s forehead. She didn’t need a thermometer to know that her baby was roasting, but she asked Dean to grab one anyway.

“Bub,” she murmured quietly. Seth turned to look up at her.

“It hurts, Mommy,” his voice was barely a whisper, yet it still held a note of desperation.

“I know it does, baby. Can you come out of there? We’ll make it better.”

Seth attempted to get to his knees, but between dizziness and the unevenness of the air mattress, he ended up falling out of the fort instead. He landed on both hands, and cried out as his left arm buckled under his weight. Tears welled up in his eyes. Dean and Roman helped their brother stand, and led him to the couch.

“Did you hurt your arm too?” Lily asked him softly.

“It’s really sore,” Seth whimpered. “I think I sprained it when I fell through the bridge.”

“Okay. I’ll take a look at that in a minute. How about your leg, baby? How’s that feeling?”

“Better. The heating pad helped.” Dean returned with the thermometer and Lily stuck it under Seth’s tongue. While they waited, she lifted up his shirt. What she saw made her cringe.

Above Seth’s left hip, there was a lump the size of a quarter. It was white, except for two tiny red dots at the top. A red ring formed around the bottom of the lump, and the redness spread in angry streaks in all directions. There was swelling too. It did indeed look like a spider bite. Lily rested hand an inch or so away from it, and Seth flinched. She could feel the lump radiating heat. Then the thermometer beeped. Lily looked at it; Seth’s temperature was 102.8.

“Okay. I think we need to get you to the ER, bub.” Lily went to stand up, but Seth grabbed her.

“No. No, Mama, please, no doctors. Please.”

Lily felt her heart drop; she knew how her son felt about being touched by strangers but this didn’t look good. It didn’t look good at all.

“Baby,” she began. “We need to get you some medicine so you’ll feel better...come on, Sethie. It’s going to be okay.”

“I want Dean and Roman,” Seth began to cry in earnest now. “And I want Daddy.”

“It’s okay, Seth. Dean and I will come,” Roman didn’t even bother to get his mother’s confirmation on this; his brother needed him and he wasn’t going to let Seth down.

Lily’s first instinct was to tell Roman that no, he and Dean needed to stay home, but then she glanced at Seth. Dean was sitting on the floor in front of him holding his hand and talking to him. It wasn’t often that Dean stepped in to the role as protector, so Lily knew Seth must really need him. It also occurred to Lily that Seth may well be admitted for observation, and she wasn’t willing to leave her two oldest all alone overnight. So rather than argue, she pulled Roman aside.

“Look...I want you and Dean to go. I don’t want to upset Seth, but I need you to do something for me. Get your duffel bag. Get some overnight clothes and something comfy for tomorrow for each of you. And deodorant and that stuff. Just in case.”

Roman’s eyes grew wide.

“You think he’ll have to stay in the hospital?”

“I don’t know, Ro. But that bite looks pretty bad and since he’s got a fever, it wouldn’t surprise me. Maybe not. But I think it’s better to be prepared.”

“Okay. I’ll get stuff together. Should I bring him some books?”

Lily smiled.

“I think you’d better. He and I have been reading The Deathly Hallows.”

“Again?” Roman questioned. “He’s got to have read it five times by now…”

“Seven,” Lily replied, and Roman laughed.

“He and I are reading A Storm of Swords,” Roman told Lily. “He wants to get through the whole series before summer break. And Dean even likes those; he’ll listen for a long time.”

Lily kissed Roman’s cheek.

“I love you, kiddo,” she whispered. “Go get that stuff huh?”

Roman nodded, and Lily went into her own room to throw some clothes and toiletries in a bag. She’d just about finished when she heard Dean calling her frantically.

“Mom? Mom! Come quick!”

Lily ran to the living room faster than she even thought possible. Seth’s face was pale and he was shivering violently. She dropped to her knees beside Dean, who’s face was stricken.

“What is it, sweetie? What’s wrong?”

Dean looked at Lily, fear etched in his face.

“He just told me I have bugs crawling all over my face,” Dean whispered. “And...Mama? I think I found another bite.”

Chapter Text

Dean lifted the sleeve of Seth’s shirt and low and behold, there was another raised white hill of infected flesh, the base of this one every bit as angry and red as the one on Seth’s side. Lily shivered; venom from one widow was bad enough but two? Then another thought seized her---what if he had more than two bites? She didn’t want to strip him down right there, figuring they’d look in the emergency room too and that would upset Seth enough. Instead, she instructed Dean to get her two ice packs, then get her bag and put it in the trunk. She pressed the cold packs to the bites, and Seth groaned.

“Mama...I just feel worse,” he moaned. “Make it go away, Mama.”

“Shhh...bub. It’s okay. You’re gonna be okay. We’re going to go to the doctor. Can you walk?”

“I dunno…” Seth’s words were slightly slurred. He certainly did seem to be getting worse, and Lily wasn’t sure she could carry him.

Roman’s voice came from behind Lily.

“Come on, Seth. I’ll help you.” Roman wrapped an arm around Seth’s waist and gently lifted him to his feet. Lily grabbed a blanket off the sofa and followed behind Roman and Seth. Dean met them in the garage. Roman crawled into the Highlander and tried to help Seth settle, but he whimpered and gazed at his brother with pleading eyes. Roman understood and drew Seth into his arms and cradled him. Lily tucked the blanket around them, and Dean opted to squeeze into the backseat as well.

Lily drove faster than she should have, but she didn’t care. She knew that dying from a spider bite was incredibly rare, but she also knew that the treatment could be brutal and her baby was already miserable. She looked in the rearview mirror. Roman was cradling Seth’s upper body in his arms. Dean had rested Seth’s legs on his lap and was leaning his head against Roman’s shoulder. Seth appeared to be asleep. He was still shivering, though. Lily sighed and prayed that the emergency room wouldn’t be busy and he could be seen right away. She mentally kicked herself for not contacting Dr. Enderle and asking him to make the ER aware that they were coming.

When they arrived, Lily parked as close to the door as she could. She didn’t want to leave the boys alone to go move the car. Roman practically carried Seth into the hospital; he was getting weaker. Dean watched the whole thing with a terrified look on his face. Lily wrapped her arm around him as they walked in.

“He’s gonna be fine, kiddo. Okay?” Dean nodded but didn’t speak.

The nurse at the front desk took one look at poor Seth and took them back to a small room so that he could lay down while they waited for him to be seen. Seth was frightened, begging his mother to hold him, so she pulled a chair close to his bed, wrapped her arms around Seth, and cuddled him against her while she filled out papers. He continued to tremble, and Lily could feel the heat of his fever. She couldn’t decide if his breathing seemed shallow, or if it was just from his fear, or if she was just paranoid, but she didn’t like it. After what seemed like hours, a nurse came to get them and take Seth into an exam room.

“You two will have to wait in the waiting room,” she said, addressing Roman and Dean. Seth began to cry.

“Please...I want my brothers,” he moaned.

“I’m sorry,” the nurse said, though she didn’t sound at all sorry. “While you’re being examined, they have to wait.”

Seth continued to cry as they moved him to an exam room. A second nurse joined them. She took one look at the bites on Seth’s arm and torso and paged a doctor. Things started to move quickly after that.

A doctor showed up almost immediately, just as the first nurse finished taking Seth’s blood pressure---187/111, which was really high, especially for an otherwise
healthy teenager. The doctor, Dr. Huggins, took a Sharpie and drew a circle around each of the bites. Seth stopped crying and watched cautiously.

“What are those for?”

Dr. Huggins smiled at Seth and Lily instantly liked her.

“This is the fastest way to measure if the swelling keeps growing,” she answered. “I’ll look again in an hour or so and see if it’s on the outside of the circle. Tell me what happened, Seth. You’ve got some nasty bites here.”

Seth went through the whole ordeal, his words still slurring occasionally, and he kept having to pause, as though he wasn’t sure what came next. Then he went completely silent as he stared at the doctor, and his next words chilled Lily to the bone.

“Do you know,” Seth said to Dr. Huggins, “that I can see your bones under your skin?”

Then he turned to Lily.

“Mommy, it hurts,” he moaned. “It hurts like a 9, Mommy. Please make it stop!”

Dr. Huggins looked at Lily.

“Hurts like a 9?”

“We always ask the boys on a scale of 1-10, how bad does it hurt? A 9 is...he’s in a lot of pain.”

“Well, here’s the first plan of action,” Dr. Huggins said. “We need to determine that they’re for sure widow bites, and we need to try and lower his blood pressure, and I’m going to start IV antibiotics and fluids, so we’ll add a little bit of pain killer to that and see if that helps. I need to watch the swelling for about the next hour. It’s kind of a waiting game, but he’s in good hands.”

“Can his brothers come in here? I know they’re going crazy in the waiting room…”

“Let’s get the IV’s started and then yeah, we’ll bring them back.”

The nurse that took Seth’s blood pressure came back in and began gently attempting to remove Seth’s clothes. Seth was too weak to really fight, but his cries turned to screams pretty quick. Lily quickly stepped in; she knew Seth would handle it better if she did it herself. As she lifted his arms to remove his t-shirt, her heart nearly stopped when she saw a third spider bite, up near the sensitive skin of his armpit.

“Umm…” Lily motioned the nurse over.

“My goodness,” she murmured. “Poor baby. No wonder he’s in such pain.” The nurse gently touched the bite with gloved fingers and Seth made a horrible, screaming, choking sound and practically arched off the table.

“Eleven! Eleven!” His agonized squeals brought tears to Lily’s eyes.

Dr. Huggins returned with a tray of tools, but when the nurse showed her the new find, she decided a change in tactic was in order. Seth was still sobbing and moaning on the exam table, clearly in terrible pain, and the things he was saying were no longer making much sense. Dr. Huggins instructed the nurse to start an IV of saline, before turning to Lily.

“Is he allergic to any medications?”

“None that we’re aware of but he’s never needed them like this before. All he’s ever had are antibiotics and Tylenol…” she whispered.

“Okay. We’re going to start his drip and add morphine for right now. See if that helps. I need him to settle so I can examine him to make sure there are no more bites.” To the nurse, Dr. Huggins instructed,

“I need you to start locating antivenin. We may not use it but we need to know where some is if we do.”

“Is that necessary?” Lily wondered.

“With at least 3 bites? It may well be. Typically one bite will just deliver enough venom to make life difficult, but more bites means more venom and...so far, he’s breathing fine. His blood pressure is my main concern, and of course, the pain. I still want to test to make 100% sure they’re widow bites, though they sure look like it.”

“Okay, Seth,” came the nurse’s voice. You’re going to feel a stick okay?”

Seth was barely coherent, but Lily could tell by his high-pitched squeals that he was not at all okay. Actually, he was scaring her. Even when he was terrified, hiding under a blanket on a hospital bed, he had never been quite like this.

“Sethie...bub...I’m here. I’m right here,” she murmured, cradling his upper body in her arms. “It’s okay, bub. Mama’s got you. Mama’s got you, Seth. Shhhhh….”

The nurse, whose name badge read ‘Reba’, tenderly held Seth’s hand palm up as she tried to find a good vein.

“You’re doing great, Seth,” her voice was gentle. “That’s it; that’s good. It’s just a sting, buddy, and then we’re going to give you some medicine to help you feel better. Just let Mama hold you and hang on. It’ll be over before you know it.”

Seth didn’t stop squealing, but he did stop trying to squirm, which made sense because he wasn’t strong enough to move much anyway. Lily held him close and stroked his spine and hair. She continued to murmur in his ear as Reba inserted the needle into his vein on the very first try (Lily made a mental note to get her a Starbucks giftcard or something for that one), then taped it down gently. Seth never even flinched as she started the saline dripping into his arm, and when she added a vial of morphine a few moments later, he made no movement whatsoever. He was calming down, and Lily was thankful for that. When Reba gently stuck him again to draw blood, he still made no movement or sound.

Dr. Huggins returned then, and after noting how Seth was calmer, resumed her examination. She probed his glands, inspected every inch of his skin, and then she turned to Lily.

“You’ve done a good job of doctoring his scraped leg.” Lily smiled.

“Actually, my two older sons did it. I was at work yesterday when Seth fell, and my boys followed my instructions to the letter. Some of them before I even GAVE them.”

“Well, it’s healing beautifully,” Dr. Huggins replied. “Come look at this, though.”

Lily moved to the foot of Seth’s bed, and the doctor pointed to a spot on Seth’s calf. At first, Lily wasn’t sure what she was looking at, and then she realized two small pin pricks. Fang marks.

“Oh, God,” she whispered. “Four?”

“Looks like it, but this one appears to be a dry bite,” Dr. Huggins mused. “Fully grown venomous creatures can control how much venom they release or whether they actually release any at all. Baby rattlesnakes, for example, are considerably more dangerous than adults because they release all of their venom at once. Spiders are the same way. So even though Seth has a bite here, it looks to me as though no venom was actually released. It’s not swollen and painful like the others.”

Seth whimpered then, and Lily was back by his side in less than a second. He was still unmoving, but his soft mewls and sweat-damp hair told her he was far from not feeling pain.

“How bad now?” Lily whispered to her baby.

“Eight,” he mumbled, eyes unfocused. Lily sighed.

Dr. Huggins pulled up a stool and sat beside Lily and Seth.

“Hey,” she murmured softly to him. “Listen. I want to tell you and your mom a few things. Okay?”

Seth blinked and nodded.

“It’s going to be another hour or so before we get your blood tests back to tell us about how much venom from the spiders is in your system. I know you’re in pain, Seth. We’re working on that. I’m going to go get your brothers so Mama doesn’t have to leave you, and they can hang out in here but it’s really important that you try to rest. I know it hurts, buddy. I know it does. Just try and rest and let the pain meds do their job okay?”

Seth nodded again and Dr. Huggins stood up and left the room, returning a few moments later with Roman and Dean. Seth took one look at his big brothers and burst into hysterical tears.

“Hey...hey, Seth, this isn’t relaxing, buddy---” Dr. Huggins began, but Lily held up a hand.

“Give them a minute.”

Dr. Huggins, Lily, and Reba all watched as Dean and Roman each took a place on a side of Seth’s bed. Roman crawled up beside his brother, and Seth immediately leaned back against him. Roman had their book in his hands and he tenderly draped an arm around Seth and opened to the right page. Meanwhile, Dean crawled in on the other side and rested his head on Seth’s legs. Eventually Seth’s fingers found Dean’s hair and he began to play with it. Roman began to read. His little brothers were completely captivated by his voice, and everyone was still and quiet, and Lily went around to crouch in front of Seth.

“How bad now, bub?”

“Seven…” Seth whispered. Lily tenderly stroked Seth’s curls. He closed his eyes, listening to Roman’s voice.

An hour later found Lily waiting for Dr. Huggins to return to Seth’s exam room. All three boys were asleep on Seth’s bed. A nurse had tried to tell her that the boys couldn’t be up there but luckily, Reba had intervened, stating that if it kept the patient calm, that’s what they were doing. Lily had managed to call Tony, who was trying to get a flight back. Although Seth was calm and resting, Lily knew by the monitor keeping track of his vitals that his fever and his blood pressure were still too high. While the morphine may be working, nothing else seemed to be.

Dr. Huggins showed up a few moments later and motioned Lily out to the hall.

“Okay, let me give it to you straight,” Dr. Huggins began. “Seth has high levels of the toxin associated with black widow venom in his blood. The level is high enough that I don’t think it’s going to just go away on its own, and I do recommend antivenin.”

“Okay…” Lily spoke carefully. “I’m an orthopedic surgeon, so I’m not extremely versed on the effects of venom or antivenin. But I’ve heard that antivenin is very difficult on a person’s system, especially a child. So tell me about that.”

“Well, you’re right. It can be very difficult treatment. It’s like…you know how when you’re sick, your body runs a fever because it’s fighting the virus or bacteria off? Well, it’s what your body needs to do but it’s uncomfortable during the process. This is the same thing. Antivenin basically fights the venom. So while it’s getting started, yes, he will be very uncomfortable. He’ll probably cramp a lot, he’ll run a fever, some people experience nausea---for about 24 hours, he’ll probably feel quite miserable, yes.”

“Then what are the benefits?” Lily wanted to know.

“The most important thing is, he will probably experience a dramatic reduction in the pain he’s experiencing. He’ll still have the cramping, and we’ll be pumping a lot of fluids into him to keep him hydrated, but the pain should start to reduce almost immediately. He’s had morphine and he still says he’s at a 7 and really at this point, the most he should be feeling is mildly uncomfortable. Gradually, his blood pressure will go down, the swelling will go down, and in a day or two, he’ll feel considerably better. The antivenin will sort of cancel the venom out, so it will also dramatically reduce the risk of kidney or other body organ damage. Whether he gets antivenin or not, we’ll want to test his kidney function for the next few months just to make sure it’s okay, and we’re keeping a very close eye on his lungs tonight, but his heart, liver, etc. should not be affected.”

“What are the risks of the antivenin?” Lily asked.

“The greatest risk is an allergic reaction that results in anaphylaxis, and we’ll be constantly monitoring him with epinephrine nearby so we can step in as quickly as possible.”

Lily closed her eyes.

“And if we don’t go with the antivenin?”

“It will be a lot harder to manage his pain, and he’ll continue to swell. The two main things are his blood pressure is too high right now. He’s not responding to the medicine we gave him. It’s not getting higher which is positive, but by now it should’ve dropped, especially since he’s calmed down so nicely. The thing we worry most about with high blood pressure at his age is a stroke. The other thing is the venom could cause kidney failure. That’s not horribly likely with the amount actually in his system, but it is entirely possible.”

“Ugh…” Lily felt a headache coming on. “My husband will be here in the morning. Do I have to decide right now?”

“No. We’ll do our best to manage his pain tonight and keep his blood pressure in check. If we can keep him quiet, he should do okay until morning.”

“Dr. Huggins? What would you do? If Seth was your child, what would you do?”

Dr. Huggins looked at Lily.

“My daughter Jaydyn is just about Seth’s age. If this was her, I would go with the antivenin. If it was even just one bite, I’d probably still go with the antivenin, and the reason is because we can’t control pain from venom the same way we can control it from other things. I think the risk of an allergic reaction does not outweigh that, especially when I can give a shot of epinephrine and have anaphylaxis reversed in under five minutes.”

Lily nodded.

“Okay,” she said. “I want to talk to my husband and see how Seth does tonight, and we’ll make a decision in the morning.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Dr. Huggins said. “In the meantime, I’ll get Seth moved to a room in Pediatrics for the night and we’ll monitor his kidney function and blood pressure and pain and see how it goes. We’ll give him a round of IV antibiotics too for good measure. Just don’t be alarmed; the amount of fluids we’re going to be pumping into him may cause some swelling throughout his body. He needs it though to keep his kidneys going.”

“Thank you, Dr. Huggins,” Lily whispered. Dr. Huggins put her hand on Lily’s shoulder.

“He’s a strong kid. He’ll be okay,” she whispered back.

Lily gently roused Roman and Dean.

“They’re taking Seth up to a room,” she murmured, digging in her purse for some cash. “You guys go down to the cafeteria and get some dinner, okay? Daddy’s trying to get home, but for now, it looks like you two are spending the night here as well.”

“Mommy?” Dean’s voice sounded small and scared, and Lily was pretty sure she knew what he was going to ask before he asked it, so she drew him into a tight hug. He buried his face into her arm.

“He’s not going to die, sweetie. Okay? We’re deciding the best way to make him better, but he’s not going to die.” She could tell by Dean’s shaking shoulders that he was crying, and she was startled; Dean was easily the least emotional of her children, at least when it came to situations like this. Lily hugged him tighter for a few minutes, then raised an arm and invited Roman into the hug.

“I mean it, guys. Seth will get better. Go down and eat now, huh? Everything’s gonna be fine.”

Lily watched her two oldest walk away, watched Roman sling his arms around Dean’s shoulder, watched Dean sag against his brother. And she finally let the tears she’d been holding back come, as she slid down the wall to the floor. She buried her head into her hands for a moment, and then she felt a presence next to her.

“He’s gonna be okay,” Reba’s voice came. That assurance somehow just made Lily cry harder.

“He’s been...his whole life has been a fight for survival,” Lily sniffed. Reba looked at her quizzically.

“How do you mean?” The nurse’s voice was soft. Lily could tell that she was genuinely concerned, though she was also listening carefully for sounds of distress coming from Seth.

“My baby is---actually, all three of my boys---they’re what we basically now call permanent foster children,” Lily murmured. “Meaning that for whatever reason, we aren’t able to adopt them yet, but they’re never going to be placed anywhere else either.”

“Okay…” Reba waited patiently.

“My Seth...he has no memory of his biological mother. He hasn’t seen her since he was about three months old. His biological father lost custody when Seth was about 8, because he’d been abusing him. He was bounced around foster homes for a couple of years but he always seemed to wind up in places that hurt him worse than the one before them, and then they put him in a group home and that’s when his nightmare really began. When I first met my sweet baby, he was a patient in this very hospital, recovering from 12 years of physical, mental, and sexual anguish. Seeing him, like this now...it’s just so hard.”

“Do you want to know something?” Reba asked Lily.

“What’s that?”

“This might break every HIPPA law out there,” Reba began. “But you’re his mother, even if it’s not legal yet, so I’m going to tell you this anyway. I was here the night those boys were brought into this emergency room. I treated Seth, and two others. I remember him...I think it’s that hair.”

Lily laughed.

“Yeah, those curls are ridiculous. They’re so soft, though.” Reba reached for Lily’s hand.

“He was literally despondent. And the examinations we had to do...well, you can imagine. I honestly didn’t think he would make it, but even though he’s miserable right now, I can tell he’s really changed.”

“Oh, God, that’s for sure. He’s improved so much. He’s a different kid. It just...they’re boys. And boys will be boys. And we’ve been through our share of broken bones, illnesses, scrapes, cuts, stitches, bruises...and I can handle all that. But this is the first time we’ve had to make a decision that could potentially...he could die.”

“He isn’t going to die. He has too much to live for now.”

At that moment, they both heard Seth cry out and leaped to their feet.

“Mommy! Where are you?” Seth whimpered.

“I’m here, bub. Right here,” Lily rubbed his back. “Shh...it’s okay, bub. We’re going to take you upstairs to your room now. How much does it hurt?”

“Like...like almost an 8…” Seth whispered.

Lily was familiar with private rooms in Pediatrics; Dean and Seth had spent enough time in them. She was thankful for the small pull out loveseat. At least Roman and Dean would have someplace to sleep tonight. Tony sent her a text at about 9 letting her know that he should be in Houston around 3 and would come straight to the hospital. Lily considered telling him just to go straight home and get some sleep and then come up at a reasonable hour, but she knew that would be a waste of words.

When Dean and Roman returned from the cafeteria, with soup in tow for Lily, she smiled when she noted that Dean had ketchup all over his face.

“Bacon cheeseburger?” She asked him innocently.

“How’d you KNOW?” Dean looked at her as though she’d performed voodoo on him.

“Just a hunch,” Lily had replied with a smile.

Seth had been given another dose of morphine, which hadn’t really served to ease his pain so much as it had made him woozy. He didn’t sleep; he laid in bed with tears in his eyes and hung on to whoever’s hand he could grab. He didn’t freak out, though. There was no screaming, no sobbing, no flailing. He was too weak for any of that; Lily could tell. His blood pressure held steady and his fever never really broke, regardless of the medications that the nurses continued to pump into his IV. He was clearly beyond miserable.

After Lily tucked Dean and Roman into bed, she crawled into bed beside Seth and held him. She rubbed soft circles over his belly, and neither of them spoke. The pain kept Seth from sleeping well, but every so often he’d doze for awhile, and Lily used that time to study him. His face was pale, but puffy. Lily knew this was a result of the fluids and steroids he’d been given. Even as he napped, he was restless. He’d wake up whimpering from the pain, then doze again from sheer exhaustion. Lily couldn’t fathom putting him through days, maybe weeks, of this when there was a possible solution, but every time she thought about losing Seth to anaphylaxis...it made her breath catch in her throat.

She didn’t sleep. She couldn’t. She instead focused on comforting her baby when he cried out or tried to move. She was still awake when Tony arrived. And the second she saw him, she started to cry again. Seth wasn’t asleep, but he was so out of it by that point that he didn’t recognized his father, nor did he have any idea that his mom was upset. Tony looked around the room at Dean and Roman sleeping on the small pullout, then knelt down beside Seth.

“Hiya buddy,” he said softly. Seth just moaned in response. Tony reached for Lily’s hand.

“Shhh,” he whispered to her, squeezing her fingers tight. “I know you’re scared, Lu. I know. But you don’t want to upset Seth.”

It quickly became obvious, however, that Seth didn’t have a clue what was happening around him. So Tony pulled Lily to her feet and pulled her from the room, where he wrapped her in his arms and hugged her tight and let her cry for a minute.

“I called your mom and dad before I left DC,” he murmured calmly into her ear. “They’re going to be here first thing in the morning and they’re going to take Roman and Dean. We’re going to get through this.” He felt Lily nod against him but she said nothing. He tried again.

“I need you to talk to me,” Tony’s voice was barely a whisper now. “I need you to tell me what you’re feeling.”

Lily took a deep breath. She knew she needed to collect her thoughts. At that moment, though, they heard Seth squeal from his bed and they both returned to his side. And Seth did something he had never done before. He reached for Tony.

“Daddy,” he whimpered. Lily swore Tony’s eyes misted over. He knelt beside Seth again and drew him into his arms.

“You’re okay. I’m here. Mama and I are both here, buddy.”

“It hurts, Daddy,” Seth moaned against Tony.

“I know. I know it does. Just try to rest, Seth. We’re going to figure this all out.” Tony tried to soothe Seth. Seth continued to hang on to his father and whimper. And Lily suddenly knew exactly what they had to do.

“He needs the antivenin…” she whispered softly. Tony nodded.

“Yeah, I think so too. When was the last time he had some medicine for the pain?”

“Not long enough ago to give him more just yet,” Lily answered. “And even then, it...it takes the edge off, but that’s about it. The antivenin just...it scares me, T. It scares me to think that we could lose him if we give it to him, but...I can’t do this anymore. He’s in agony. Have you ever seen him so miserable?”

Tony shook his head.

“I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone so miserable, Lu. I know your fear. I do. And it makes me sick too but...we can’t do this to him.” Tony shifted Seth in his arms.

Lily looked over at her other two boys, who were still sound asleep.

“I know they can reverse anaphylaxis pretty quickly...it just...still…” Lily shook her head. “But you’re right. We can’t do this to him. And his blood pressure is still way too high, and look---the bites are beginning to ooze.” Tony made a face, then gazed down at Seth, who had finally managed to doze off again. A small smile spread across his lips.

“You know...this is the first time in 18 months that he’s wanted ME. You’re right here, but he still reached for ME...I wasn’t sure that was ever going to happen.”

Lily smiled too.

“That’s because you’re the best Daddy, and he loves you. All three of our boys do. I think...I think the trust is finally there.”

A few hours later, Lily’s parents arrived. Tony went to talk to the nurses about their decision to give Seth the medicine, so Lily shouldered the burden of waking the two oldest boys---and breaking it to them that they would be leaving the hospital. True to form, Roman made no effort to even open his eyes at first, while Dean shot right up out of the bed at Lily’s soft touch on his shoulder.

“What is it? What’s wrong? Where’s Seth?” Dean exclaimed. Then he caught sight of his grandparents.

“Nana! Granddad! I didn’t know you were---wait a minute,” Dean slowly considered this. He turned to his mother.

“Seth’s dying, isn’t he. That’s why they came. Because Seth is going to---” Dean’s tirade ended when Roman reached up, grabbed the back of his shirt, and pulled
him back down to the bed.

“Shut up, Dean,” he groaned. “Seth’s not dying. Just calm down. They came to take us home.”

“WHAT? NO!” Dean shrieked and his mother quickly dropped down beside him and pulled him in a hug.

“Shhhh...sweetness. This is a hospital; you can’t shout in here,” she murmured, softly rubbing Dean’s back.

Dean looked into Lily’s eyes, his expression desperate.

“Mommy. Mama, don’t make us leave. Seth needs us. We won’t know what’s happening. Please, don’t make us go away.” And Lily hugged him closer, squeezed him as though she was afraid that if she let go, he’d bolt, because this was Dean, her Dean, and Lily had known that he would take it harder than Roman.

“Dean. Oh, my baby,” Lily whispered into his ear, but she didn’t loosen her grip on her son. “Seth is going to be just fine. Daddy and I are going to take care of him today. You and Roman need a break, baby. I need to know that you and Roman are getting some rest and some decent food. Nana and Granddad have phones; you and Roman have phones. We’ll let you know if anything big happens, Dean. But all we’re really doing is giving Seth some medicine and keeping him quiet and letting him rest. You can come see him tonight. My sweetness, I love you. I need you to do this for me. Please?”

Lily wasn’t sure if it was her words or the tone of her voice or the fact that Dean was just tired, but whatever it was, he’d calmed down by the time she was done talking. He didn’t reply, just nodded against her. Tony returned then, so Lily opted to go with Roman and Dean to the parking garage.

“Come on,” she murmured, wrapping an arm around each of her boys. I’ll walk you guys down to the car okay?”

Once Roman and Dean had been hugged, kissed, and tucked safely into her parents’ car, Lily made her way back up to Seth. Two doctors and a nurse were in his room, along with Tony and, to Lily’s surprise, Reba.

“I thought I’d just come see how he’s doing now that my shift is over,” she murmured, squeezing Lily’s shoulder. “I’ll come back and check on him when I come in tonight, okay?” Lily nodded. They were really doing this.

Seth was shivering. Someone, Lily hoped Tony, had rolled him from his side to his back. Lily took her seat beside him, across from Tony, and took his hand. Then she reached across his bed so that she could join hands with Tony as well.

“Just a few more hours, buddy,” Tony was softly reassuring Seth. “Just hang on a little bit longer.” Lily softly stroked Seth’s cheek. Seth said nothing, just stared at his parents with wide brown eyes. Trusting eyes. Eyes that said that he knew they were doing what was best for him.

“Seth, we’re going to start you on a little oxygen, okay? It’s gonna get uncomfortable before it feels better, and this is going to help you breathe,” one of the doctors spoke softly to Seth. He still didn’t make a sound, but he flinched when he saw the oxygen tube.

“It’s okay,” Dr. Byrum had noticed Seth flinch. “See this? This is called a cannula and it goes across your nose just like this, and that’s it. Doesn’t hurt a bit, does it?”
Seth shook his head.

“Now you just breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. And try your best to relax. Once we get this going, we’re going to get you some ice chips and you let me know if there’s anything you want, okay?” Seth nodded, and Dr. Byrum turned to Lily and Tony.

“Okay, Mom and Dad, you get to stay right with him the whole time. You can talk to him, touch him, whatever you think you need to do to help him get past the hard part. We’re going to start with two vials. I can pretty much guarantee he’s going to need more like four, but we’re gonna take this slow. Just remember it’s gonna get harder and then it’s gonna get a whole lot easier. If he’s gonna have a reaction, it’s gonna happen pretty fast. Fifteen minutes and we’ll know. Okay?”

They nodded and turned their attention to Seth.

“You’re being such a good boy, bub,” Lily murmured.

“That’s for sure. I think Seth’s earned a special treat. What do you think, Mama?”

“I think Seth’s pretty much earned whatever he wants,” Lily smiled at Seth, acutely aware of Dr. Byrum in the background sticking a needle into Seth’s IV and pressing the plunger down. The killer medicine was in her baby’s system now, and all she could do was reassure him and wait.

Chapter Text

Dean didn’t say a single word on the ride home, and when they got there, he got out of the car, walked to his room, and closed the door. Roman knew he needed some space, but he hated it. He hated that Dean was upset, he hated that Seth was sick, he hated that his parents were worried, and he hated that he couldn’t do a single thing about any of it. Nana tried to talk to Dean, but she returned to the living room shortly after. Roman could’ve told her that it was useless, but she hadn’t asked.

Their Nana was a tiny woman. She barely cleared five feet tall, which meant Roman had about a foot on her, but she gave a killer hug, so Roman didn’t mind when she enveloped him in her arms.

“Your Mama has such good boys,” Nana whispered into his ear. Roman just nodded, then he whispered back,

“Dean’s good too. He’s just scared.”

“Oh, Roman. I know. He’s right to be scared. It’s a scary, hard thing.”

Roman yawned.

“I should go take care of the horses,” he said.

“Don’t worry. Your Granddad is doing that right now,” Nana replied, running her fingers through Roman’s raven hair.

“He knows how to do it?” Roman had no idea his grandfather had ever touched a horse before, nevermind knew how to care for one.

“Boy, where do you think your Mama gets her knack for it?” Nana asked him. “It certainly did not come from me.” Roman laughed.

“Now there. That’s a sound I like to hear. You must be exhausted, mo chroÍ. Do you want to go to bed for a bit?”

Mo chroí. Roman knew that this meant ‘my heart’ in Gaelic. He decided he liked it.

“Not right now,” he mumbled.

“Okay,” Nana murmured a response. “You rest right here, then. After a bit, I intend to try and bribe your brother with a trip to the mall. Mama says he wants new shoes.”

Roman laughed in his head, but he hadn’t realized how exhausted he was. He fell asleep before he realized that Nana was pulling a blanket over him and kissing his cheek softly.

When Roman woke up, the DVR clock said 12:30. He yawned and stretched, then stared at the ceiling for a moment. If he’d been asleep for three hours, surely everything was going okay with Seth. Surely his grandparents would’ve woken him up if anything had gone wrong. He picked up his phone anyway.

He had five unread texts. One from his mom, one from his dad, and three from Dean. Roman rolled his eyes.

The first, sent at 9:48, was from Mom:

“First round of meds are in. Seth is uncomfortable but doing okay. I love you boys beyond words.”

The second, third, and fourth were all from Dean, sent between 10 & 10:19:

“Will you come to my room?”

“I’ll hate your guts forever if you don’t come back here.”

“Okay, no I won’t. I love you. You’re my brother. But please come here.”

The fifth was from Dad, at 11:59:

“Doc says Seth is gonna get better! Might be a rough day yet, but the worst is over. Love you two.”

Roman sighed. Seth was going to be okay. Now all he had to worry about was Dean. He dragged himself to his feet and shuffled down the hall to Dean’s room. He didn’t bother to knock.

“Dean…” Roman could tell his brother was upset. Dean was laying on his side on his bed with a pillow over his head. A muffled sound came out from under it.

“No. I’m not going away,” Roman answered. “I fell asleep or I’d have come sooner. You okay?”

Dean pulled the pillow away from his face.

“Dude. In case you didn’t notice, I’m trying to suffocate myself. Leave me to die, Rome. Seth needs me in Heaven. Goodbye, cruel world!” He disappeared under his pillow again. This time, Roman grabbed it from his hands and smacked him with it.

“First. Not funny.” Roman grumbled. “Second, check your phone. Third, I highly doubt Heaven is where you’re going. Fourth, you punk ass drama queen, get up. Nana wants to take us shopping.”

“Oh come on. It’s a little funny,” Dean muttered. “And I know. She told me. But I can’t be bought. I’m not going anywhere.”

“Guess I’ll have to get your new shoes for me, then,” said Roman. “I was gonna wait for my birthday to ask for new ones, but since you’re passing on a chance…”

Roman could tell Dean was thinking about this. Finally he said,

“Okay. I’ll go. Not because I have a price, though.”

“No? Why then?” Roman goaded.

“Because Heaven or not, I think Seth would really want me to have some new Nikes, Rome.” Dean sat up.

“He’d probably want you to have some too. C’mon. Let’s go to the mall.”

Dean was determined not to be happy. They got him out of bed. They got him out of the house. But no shoes in the world were going to be enough to make him enjoy shopping. Not even the incredible red Nike’s that his Nana and Granddad bought him. Nor would the three pounds of candy they let him pick at the candy store. He would eat salt water taffy and chocolate covered Oreo’s until his stomach hurt. That would teach them.

He didn’t let himself feel happy over Roman’s new shoes either, or his candy, or the new biking gloves Roman pointed out that Dean NEEDED. No amount of money spent on him was going to make him forget that here he was getting pampered while his little brother was in the hospital, probably wondering at that very moment where Dean was and why he’d abandoned him.

Then he saw it.

He’d wandered ahead of Roman and his grandparents, who were talking about the upcoming football season (of course), and he stopped outside Spencer’s. There, in the window, was an exquisite collection of Harry Potter wands. They were all different, and each labeled with the name of the character that used them in the books. If anything would make Seth feel better…

By the time the others caught up with him, Dean had already gone into the store and found a salesperson.

“How much for the whole set?” He asked softly. He was quoted a price: $249.95. Dean turned to his grandfather.

“Please?” That was all Dean had to say.

Granddad nodded to the girl, who collected the wands and began boxing them up. As his grandfather paid, Dean thought about the look on Seth’s face when he saw his new present. And for the first time since the day before, Dean smiled.

They went to the Cheesecake Factory for dinner. That made Dean happy too. So did the huge piece of Snickers cheesecake that his grandparents let him have for dessert (Roman couldn’t decide between blueberry and cookie dough, so he got both). Dean’s happiness was short lived, however, when they got back in the car and he realized they were headed for home.

“Wait---why aren’t we going to the hospital?” Dean asked, alarmed.

“Yeah---I thought we were going to go see Seth!” Roman didn’t sound happy, either.

Nana turned around in her seat.

“Boys...let’s just go home and then we’ll talk about that, okay?”

The rest of the ride home was silent. Dean could feel himself fighting back anger. He didn’t WANT to go home. He wanted to see Seth. He stared at his hands, which began to fidget. Then he began tapping his toe. Roman reached over and rested a hand on Dean’s knee. It didn’t help him calm down though. But then, as they turned into the drive that led up to their house, Dean looked up and saw something that made his heart skip a beat.

The Highlander was parked in the driveway. That could mean just one thing. Mom was home. Roman noticed it at the same time Dean did. As soon as their grandparents’ car was parked, both boys leaped out of it and ran through the garage, through the door into the house and there she was. She was wearing what she called her ‘scuzzies’, old sweatpants and a faded t-shirt, her hair in a wacky ponytail on top of her head, and she wasn’t wearing any makeup. Dean couldn’t think of a time when she’d ever looked more beautiful, though. For a moment, they all froze, just staring at each other. Then Lily spoke.

“My babies. My boys. You’d better get over here and give your mother a hug.”

That was all Roman and Dean needed to hear. They flung themselves at her and held on tight. Then the questions began.

“Why are you here, Mom?”

“Is Seth still okay?”

“Are you going back to the hospital?”

“Take us with you! Please!”

Lily held up her hand.

“Guys. Showers and pajamas, okay? Then we’ll sit down and talk. Dean, you may use the shower in our bathroom tonight.”

She hugged them both again.

“Everything’s fine. I just really needed to see you two,” she whispered. “I promise we’ll talk. Go shower.”

 

___________________________

 

Once Dean and Roman were clean and in comfy, warm pjs, they sat together with their mother on the sofa. Nana and Granddad had gone up to the hospital to spend the night with Tony and Seth, and Lily was tackling the task of combing out Roman’s damp hair. Dean rested his head on her shoulder, content to watch and just listen to her talk.

“So---first of all, I’m staying home with you guys tonight,” Lily began. “Seth is going to sleep for awhile now, and I haven’t slept since Monday, and I know you guys didn’t sleep too well last night. Daddy and I figured he’d sleep at the hospital tonight so I could spend some time with you two. We’ll probably trade until Seth comes home.”

Roman nodded and Dean squirmed around so he could look into his mom’s eyes.

“Mama? Is everything okay now? How is Seth?”

“Seth is…” Lily paused. “Guys, I won’t lie. He’s in rough shape. The medicine he needed was very hard on his body. And we knew it probably would be. Earlier today was especially tough, because he was already in so much pain. The antivenin seems to be doing his job though. The pain is much better tonight. His blood pressure is still a little high but that’s much better too.”

“Good. That’s good, right?” Roman asked. Lily nodded.

“That’s good. That’s great, actually. The main thing right now is his kidneys are having a little trouble working. It’s not extremely serious, but it’s something they’re watching very, very closely. His body is just worn out. He needs his rest. Which is another reason I came home tonight. He’s so tired, guys. He honestly is probably going to sleep all night, and I really really wanted to see you two. I’m glad that Nana and Granddad could come and hang out with you guys, but I know it isn’t really fair for you to be separated from your parents when you’re scared, too.”

Dean snuggled closer to his mom, who finished combing Roman’s hair and tied it in a bun at the nape of his neck. He turned around and rested his head on her other shoulder and started playing with her fingers.

“It’s okay, Mama,” Roman said softly. “We understand. There’s one of you and three of us. Seth needed you the most today. But we’re sure glad you’re here now.” Dean nodded his agreement and Lily smiled.

“I’m glad too, my loves. I’m so glad too.”

Later on, Roman fell asleep resting on Lily’s shoulder, so she took off his shoes and tucked a blanket around him right there on the couch. Then she gazed into Dean’s blue eyes.

“Tired?” Lily asked him as she rubbed his shoulder. Dean shook his head.

“Nope,” he murmured, then yawned a massive yawn.

Lily kissed his temple.

“I love you, sweets.”

“Love you too. Mama?”

“Yes, Dean?” Lily looked at him questioningly.

“Can we lay in your bed tonight?”

“Yeah. Of course we can.” Lily stood and pulled Dean to his feet. “Come on. You wanna talk?”

“Not really,” Dean whispered.

Lily sighed. She had a feeling there would be no sleeping tonight. When Dean got keyed up like this, it never seemed to matter how tired he was. Sleep was the enemy, and there wouldn’t be a lot she could do about it. That probably meant she wasn’t going to get a whole lot of sleep herself. It wouldn’t hurt to try, though.

After they crawled into bed, Lily found some old movie on Netflix, but she kept the volume low. Dean was quiet and still, but he didn’t sleep. Every so often he’d turn his head, as though to check and make sure she was still there. Lily drifted into thought about this precious child. He was so different from Roman and Seth. Not that Roman and Seth were the same; far from it. But Dean felt his feelings very intensely, which sometimes overwhelmed him. Now was one of those times; no matter how much reassurance he got, it would likely be a few more days before he stopped worrying about Seth enough to let his guard down a little.

At 3 am, her phone buzzed. It was Tony.

“Hi. You guys okay?” Lily wondered.

“Yeah. Seth just woke up. I don’t think he’s going to be awake for long but he wanted to call you. I figured you might still be up. What are you doing?”

“Laying in bed with Dean,” she murmured in response.

“He okay?”

“Not sure yet. But he’d like to talk to bub, I bet. Hang on. Okay, you guys are on speaker.”

A soft, slurred, tired voice croaked out,

“Mommy?”

“Heya, bub. Doing okay?”

Seth sounded drunk.

“Yeahhhhhh…”

“Seth?” Dean’s voice broke through the darkness in the room.

“Dean? Deeeeeeannnn…” Seth mumbled. Lily could feel Dean smile a little, and she smiled against the back of his neck.

“Yeah. It’s me, Seth. Are you okay? Does it hurt?”

“Nahhhh...doesn’ hurt righ’ now...can’t feel...muchhhhhh,” all of Seth’s words were either drawn out or smushed together. Dean giggled a little.

“Gotta peeeeeee...Daddy said I could just...just pee because there’s a tube in...in my...what?”

“Your bladder,” Tony supplied, and he sounded like he was quietly laughing as well.

“Yeahhhhhhh...my bladder,” then Seth hiccupped and giggled. “Bladder. Blaaaaaaadder. That’s a funny word.”

Dean was laughing openly now, when Seth’s tone suddenly changed from happy to distressed.

“Mommy?! But Mommy, I really realllllllly gotta peeeeeeeeeeeeee,” Seth wailed.

“It’s okay, bub,” Lily tried to stifle her own giggle at her poor son’s obvious concern over this. “Daddy’s right. There’s a tube in your bladder; you can pee. It’s okay.”

“Bladder,” Seth snickered softly, then whimpered. “But Mommy!” Seth’s voice dropped to a whisper. “If I pee, Dad’s gonna get all wet.”

Lily could feel Dean’s shoulders shaking. She couldn’t tell if he was laughing or crying. Maybe it was a little of both.

“Don’t worry, Seth,” they heard Tony say. “If I get wet, I’ll change. It’s okay.”

There was a long pause, and then Lily and Dean both heard Seth let out a relieved,

“Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.”

Soon after, Seth fell back into a deep sleep, and after Tony told Dean he loved him, they ended the call.

“Mom?” Dean whispered.

“Yeah, love?” Lily murmured back.

“Seth sounds okay.”

“Yeah. Seth’s gonna be okay. Once all that medication wears off.” Lily could see Dean’s eyes close, and within a few minutes, his deep even breathing told her he was asleep.

Chapter Text

Seth wound up spending 10 days in the hospital and missing three weeks of school. He required a bit of physical therapy to rebuild the strength in his left arm and hip after the bites, but by that summer, he was at 100% again. Even his kidneys had no lasting damage.

Since Seth was in great shape, they went on their planned trip to Chicago. The ball game was incredible; Wrigley Field, Lily claimed, was as beautiful as she remembered. After it was over, they strolled down a few blocks, where they stopped at a place called Nuts on Clark. “Voted the World’s Best Popcorn”, a sign in the window proclaimed. Well, who could pass up on a chance to try THAT? Each of the boys left with a bag of popcorn, which they ate on the way back to the L. Then on the way back to the hotel, they stopped at a pizzeria where they ate delicious Chicago-style deep dish pizza.

They ventured to Lake Michigan the next day. The water was freezing cold, but Seth stuck his feet in anyway, noticing with pride that neither of his older brothers had the guts. After that, they headed to Navy Pier for lunch. As they strolled down the dock, Seth noticed his mother gazing longingly at the huge Ferris wheel.

“Can we ride it?” Seth made sure to widen his eyes. It was a look he knew kept his mother from denying him just about anything. “I’ve never been on one before…” He smiled when his mother’s eyes lit up.

Turned out, neither of Seth’s older brothers had ever ridden on a Ferris wheel before either. Also turned out they were both afraid of heights. So their dad stayed on the ground with them while Seth rode with his mother, nearly giddy at the fact that he had been braver than both Roman and Dean twice in one day. It stopped at the top and the view was incredible, and he wrapped his arm around his mama and held her tight for once.

Right after the family returned from Chicago, Seth’s parents sat him down. They knew he didn’t know a thing about his biological mother, other than that she’d left shortly after he was born. He had never asked them about her, but after his birthday, his mother and father decided it was time to let him know the truth---they knew quite a bit about her.

He knew it was serious when they both took the day off work and let him sleep in, then he woke up to find that his father had dropped his brothers off at the center. Seth wasn’t like Dean. In that situation, Dean would have immediately assumed that he was going to be sent to a new family, or worse. But it never even occurred to Seth to worry. So when his parents sat him down on the couch, he was absolutely floored by what they had to say.

“Bub...tell us what you actually know about your mother,” Lily began.

Confused, Seth thought they meant Lily.

“Well...you take good care of us,” Seth began. “Umm...you’re a really good cook, and you’re a doctor. You---” Tony laughed gently.

“No, Seth,” he had gently wrapped an arm around Seth’s shoulders. Ever since the hospital, he’d had no problem with accepting affection from Tony. “We’re asking you what you know about your biological mother.”

Seth stiffened; why were they asking him this?

“I…” he paused for quite awhile. “I know her first name was Adria, and I know that she left my dad when I was just a baby. And...umm...I know...I know that I have her eyes.”

“How do you know that, bub?” Lily asked him gently.

Seth looked up at her, then stood.

“Hang on. I’ll show you.”

He got up and went to his room and dug in his top dresser drawer until he found what he was looking for, an item he hadn’t shown them in the nearly two years since they brought him home. He took it back to the living room and handed it to his mother.

It was a very time-worn photograph. In it, a young dark-haired woman was holding a baby, no more than 2 or 3 months old. The woman looked so incredibly happy, but it was the eyes that grabbed both Lily and Tony’s attention instantly. She and the baby had the exact same eyes, and those eyes absolutely belonged to Seth. Lily’s breath caught in her throat, and Seth was startled to look up and realize she had tears in her eyes.

“This is her,” Lily whispered. It wasn’t a question.

“It’s all I have,” Seth replied quietly. Lily immediately wrapped Seth into a hug, then upon releasing him, she took his hands in hers.

“Seth? Why haven’t you shown us this before, baby?” Seth looked at his mother. There was no anger or disappointment in her eyes; only love and genuine curiosity.

“I was so used to keeping it hidden, you know? Because if anyone had seen it at the group home…” Seth hung his head, but Lily gently took his chin and tilted his face up until he had no choice but to look into her eyes.

“It would have been destroyed,” she said softly. Again, not a question. Seth nodded.

“When I first got here...like...it never crossed my mind that you might take it away or anything, but I was...I guess I just...didn’t want you to be disappointed.”

“We wouldn’t have been disappointed, buddy,” his father said slowly, wrapping his arm around Seth.

“I know that now. But then...plus...it was so hard. To talk. About anything. I just...didn’t want...I don’t know. I just didn’t want to be asked a ton of questions that I don’t know the answers to.”

“I can understand that,” Tony said, and Lily nodded.

“Would you...would you like to know more about her?” Seth gazed at Lily.

“I...I mean...I don’t know. I don’t...how would I even find out?”

Tony wrapped his arm around Seth again and sighed softly.

“Seth...you know we’ve read your DCF files right? I mean we did it when we first agreed to be your foster parents, and we have copies of them in our safe deposit box. We have them for Roman and Dean as well. And in yours, we have records of your mother. So since you’ve now turned 14, and that’s the age the law recognizes you as old enough to make certain decisions, we thought...we figured you’re old enough to know more about her. IF that’s something you think you’d like to do.”

“Wait. But...you know where she is?” Seth was shocked.

“Not yet. We’re working on it though. And we know quite a bit about her,” came Lily’s soft voice. Seth couldn’t help it; he started to shake.

“But...but I like living here,” he whispered.

“Oh. Oh, bub, no. Oh, baby. No, don’t misunderstand me. We’re not asking you if you want to go live with her.” Lily pulled Seth onto her lap and held him tight. He was getting taller, but he was relieved that he still fit, because he wasn’t sure he could hold himself up right then.

“That’s not even on the table, Seth,” Tony jumped in. “All we want to know is if you’d like to know more about her.”

Relief flooded Seth’s body. He felt a little dizzy, and he let his head fall to Lily’s shoulder for a moment.

“It’s okay, bub,” Lily murmured in his ear. “You’re okay, baby. We don’t have to talk about this. You can think about it as long as you’d like. We just need you to know that the offer’s on the table. Okay?”

Seth didn’t say anything; he just nodded against Lily. He made no move to get up, and his parents made no move to get him up. They must have sat like that for almost an hour before Seth finally said,

“When I was little, before the group home, I used to think about her.” His voice was soft, almost a whisper. “I used to make up stories in my head about why she left. Like she was really a spy living a double life. Or she had to go into witness protection. Or maybe she was like this really smart scientist who got called on some sort of space mission, so she had to leave me behind. I KNOW none of those is what really happened, but believing stuff like that was easier than...than thinking that she just didn’t want me. I used to think it must’ve been something really important, to leave me with a father who...you know. And I also just knew she must have had no clue what he was really like, otherwise she would’ve taken me with her.”

He felt his mom begin to rub soft circles on his lower back.

“I just don’t know...I don’t know if I could face that…” he whispered. Tony and Lily looked at one another.

“You can’t face her just not wanting you?” Lily asked him softly.

“No. I don’t think I can,” Seth whispered back.

“Then...Tony, I think we need to tell him,” Lily murmured, still holding Seth close.

“Yeah...yeah. Are you ready to hear, buddy?”

Seth looked at his mother, then his father, and then he slowly nodded.

Tony stood up and went into Lily’s office, and a moment later returned with some papers in his hand.

“Okay, Seth. If you’re sure, then let’s talk about your mother.”

“I...I don’t think...I mean I don’t know...Mama…” Seth stammered, scared to death now, but his mother didn’t let him go.

“First of all, let me do my best to dissuage your fears. Adria---she---we can’t speak to her actual feelings but based on what we know our guess would be that loving you wasn’t a factor.” Tony took Seth’s hand.

“Well...what then?” Seth whispered.

“She was sick, Seth,” Lily snuggled him gently.

“Sick? Like...sick like cancer?”

“No. Sick like---she has schizophrenia.”

“I don’t know very much about that…”

“People with schizophrenia don’t...they don’t have a very good relationship with reality, Seth. Some people get very depressed, some get manic, for some it’s a combination. Some hear voices. It’s a very difficult disease to manage.”

“So she couldn’t take care of me…” Seth took a minute to process what he was hearing. “Couldn’t she have done a better job than my father though?”

“Maybe not. Maybe she didn’t know what your father was like. Or maybe she didn’t have the mental capacity to handle it. Those are things we may never find out, Sethie. But I can’t stand the thought of you going through life believing that she just didn’t love you. That’s pretty unlikely. Mental illness doesn’t diminish a person’s capacity to love.”

“Seth, the reason we’re telling you all of this is...Mom and I would like begin the adoption process. But we don’t want you to go into it not fully informed of all the factors. You know?”

“Wait. You want to adopt me?” Seth sat up straight at this. “What about Roman and Dean?”

“We’re working on that too, bub. But each of you comes with a different situation, so different avenues have to be taken. This is the direction we need to go with you. Your biological father has no rights to you and never will again. Adria...we aren’t sure where she is NOW. If we find her, we’ll take the proper steps. Is that something you want?”

“Mom. Dad.” Seth knew he had tears in his eyes but he didn’t care, not even a little. “That’s what I want more than anything in the world. That’s what...all three of us want, more than anything in the world.”

Lily’s tears were sliding out of her eyes.

“Daddy and me too, bub,” she whispered as she cuddled close to her youngest. “That’s exactly what we want too.

“But...Mama? How come...I mean I’ve been here almost two years, so...how come just now? Why did you wait?”

“Seth...after the twins, we...I...was too afraid to try,” his mother began. “Because I couldn’t risk losing you in my attempt, but now...after last summer with Roman, we’ve been hopeful for some time that we’d be able to get the ball rolling. It’s just...like I said, you each have a different set of circumstances. But I’m ready now, bub. Daddy’s been ready for awhile, and I’m---it’s time, Sethie.”

Seth didn’t say anything for awhile after that. Instead he just sat quietly and enjoyed being wrapped up in his parents. But he had to confess something, and after awhile he couldn’t keep it in any more.

“Mama?”

“Yeah, bub?”

“The...the other reason I never showed you guys the photo?”

“Hmm?”

“It just...after awhile, I just...I guess I just didn’t really need it anymore, because I knew I was really meant to be here with you.”

Seth didn’t even protest when both parents tightened their arms around him. The squeeze was tight, but he didn’t care. He was right where he wanted to be forever.

Later that week they held a family meeting to make all three boys aware that they were in varying stages of trying to adopt each of the boys. The attitude in the house was cheerful and hopeful after that.

 

___________________________

 

The family made their annual trip to Galveston, and while they were there, Lily and Tony got the phone call they’d been waiting months for.

Lily was laying in a beach chair under the beach umbrella, reading a mystery by James Patterson. Tony was in a chair next to her asleep. The boys and dogs were happily chasing each other through the surf, when Lily realized her phone was vibrating inside her bag. She pulled it out and smiled when she saw that it was Cassie.

“Hey, lady!” Lily said in greeting, always happy to hear from her friend. Cassie had been working tirelessly on all three boys’ cases since April, and Lily knew they were getting close with Seth at least. So when she heard what Cassie had to say, she was floored.

“Lily, I got some awesome news this morning,” Cassie said gleefully. “Are you sitting down?”

“I am. Lounging on the beach, in fact.”

“Is Tony nearby?”

Lily glanced at her husband.

“Well, he is...let me try and wake him up.” Lily poked Tony with her foot. “Wake up. Cassie’s on the phone.”

“Cassie Who?” Tony mumbled but he sat up anyway.

“So…” Cassie began. “You ready to adopt Roman?”

Lily screamed and Tony leaped to his feet. This caught the attention of all three boys, who came running.

“Mom, are you okay?” Roman asked.

“Mama? What is it?” Seth wanted to know.

“Dad, did you snap her bikini again?” Dean accused.

“No, no, no,” said Lily. “Okay, Cass, the gang’s all here and on speaker. What’s going on?”

“Roman?” Cassie called.

“Yes, ma’am?” Roman replied, curious.

“I got confirmation this morning that Lisa, by the state of Texas, has no parental rights to you anymore. You ready to officially be a Girardi?”

There was silence for a few moments, as the boys stood there stunned. Then Roman croaked,

“Really?”

“Really.”

“This isn’t a joke?”

“It’s not a joke, Roman.”

Roman didn’t move for a moment. Then he threw himself into his parents arms.

“Yes yes yes yes yes yes yes!” Tears were pouring out of his eyes. Lily and Tony brought all three boys in for a family group hug, and when they were released, Seth
began jumping up and down in excitement. Dean, though, seemed...reserved. Lily noticed, but she decided not to bring it up right then. They talked to Cassie for a few minutes more and made plans to have a meeting when they returned home. Once the call ended, Roman sat down in the sand.

“I can’t believe this is really happening,” he kept whispering.

“It’s happening, kiddo,” Lily replied. “It’s happening. We love you so much, Ro.”

Later that night, Lily and Tony were back out on the beach laying in their chairs, enjoying the sound of the waves in the dark, when Roman meandered out to them. He crawled onto Lily’s chair and rested his head on her. She smiled at him.

“You’re hair’s gotten so long and pretty,” she murmured, stroking it softly. She often looked at Roman and startled at how much he had changed since the scared, angry 9 year old that she had taken in five and a half years ago. His hair was long and wavy now. He was a good two inches taller than she was. And if he let it go, he could grow facial hair. She loved the way he was a young man now, but still loved a good snuggle with his Mama when the occasion called for it.

“Mom? Dad?” Roman looked up at them. “I think Dean is upset with me.”

“Why? Did something happen?” Tony asked Roman.

“Just...just, he won’t talk to me anymore. I think...I think he’s mad that I can be adopted.”

“Oh, Ro,” Lily began. “I don’t think that he’s mad. I bet he’s scared though.”

“Well, he shouldn’t be. He’s always going to be my brother.” Roman sighed. “I want to be happy but it’s hard when he isn’t.”

“Listen, Roman,” Tony began. “You have to look at this from Dean’s point of view too. You know? Of course, he’s happy for you because you’re getting what you’ve wanted since you got here. And he loves you and he wants you to be happy. At the same time, he’s in the same boat. You’re getting what he’s always wanted since he got here, too, and that probably stings a little. How would you feel if it were Dean and Seth, besides the obvious happy? And then keep in mind, this is Dean. He’s very different from you, and he’s going to respond in a very different way from how you might.”

“Yeah...yeah, I guess you’re right,” said Roman slowly. “So what do I do about it?”

“Tonight? Give him space. Give him a chance to sort his own feelings out. He deserves that; we all do. Right?”

“Yeah...yes. Yes, sir. You’re right.”

“Doesn’t mean we can’t keep celebrating you, though,” said Lily with a grin.

“That’s true,” Tony said.

“What...do you mean?” Roman asked.

“Ever made a bucket list?” Tony asked him.

“A what?” Roman looked confused.

“A bucket list. It’s---Jeez, Lu, we need to get them that movie tomorrow and have a family movie night. Okay, a bucket list is basically a list of things you want to do or accomplish before you die, or you know, kick the bucket. Get it?”

“Okay...so basically, it’s like a list of things I’ve always wanted? So get adopted is at the top.” Roman nodded.

“Yeah, but your list can be more than one item long,” Tony replied. “In fact, Mom and I have been kind of talking and we want everyone in this family to make a bucket list. But I think we should watch the movie too first. Is that on Netflix, Lu?”

“Hang on, I’m looking,” was the reply.

“Tell me something you’ve always wanted to do, buddy. Besides get adopted; sounds like we can cross that one off.”

He didn’t even hesitate.

“I want to go to Santa Clara and watch the 9ers play at Levi Stadium.”

Tony laughed.

“Did I not tell you when I met this child that he was after my own heart? Tell you what, Roman. Soon as football season’s over for you, I’m going to make that trip happen.”

“Really?” Roman seemed astonished.

“Really. Just you and me? Because I doubt we’re gonna get your mother into the stadium.”

“Not unless they’re playing the Pack. Maybe once we adopt Sethie I can take him to watch the Packers play the Bears. Except that’d only be a celebration for me, ha!”

Roman yawned, then looked up.

“Dad? Is that Dean?”

They both looked over at the dark figure walking down towards the water’s edge.

“Yeah. I think it is,” said Tony quietly.

“What’s he doing?” Roman wondered.

The figure started digging in the sand with something that looked like a stick.

“Brooding, looks like,” Tony murmured. “Stay here with Mom, okay? Or go back in the house and hang out with Seth. I’ll get closer and talk to Dean.”

Lily finished messing with her phone and watched Tony walk away. Roman seemed content to remain where he was, but then they both froze when they heard a high scream from inside the house. Seth. Something was wrong with Seth.

Chapter Text

Seth had been dreaming about being adopted. Unfortunately, in the dream it wasn’t by his parents. They had decided they only wanted Roman, so he and Dean were sent off into the system once again. This time another family chose him right away. But it was a family of spiders. Human looking spiders, but they had extra legs and eyes, hairy faces, and when they sat down to dinner, it was a heaping tray of steamed dead flies that waited for Seth.

When he’d tried to excuse himself, they’d gotten mad, called him ungrateful, taken turns biting him, and thrown him into a huge web. He struggled and struggled, but he couldn’t free himself, and that’s when he woke up with a scream.

Then he looked around, and Dean and Roman were gone.

Then he started hearing strange, awful scratching, moaning noises coming from the closet in the boys’ shared bedroom. Certain now that it hadn’t been a dream, Seth screamed again and ran, not bothering to grab his glasses as he went. Tears blinded him and he nearly fell down the stairs but he managed to right himself after sliding down a few and then flew through the house, calling his mother. He screamed again as he plowed right into a wall. Then the wall spoke.

“Seth. Seth, it’s okay. What happened?”

Thick muscled arms---Old Spice deodorant---Roman. This was Roman, not a human spider. And Roman was hugging him, and Seth began to realize that he could breathe again. Sort of. Then there were soft hands on his back and in his hair, and the smell of Dove and apple Chapstick---Mama. He felt himself get passed into his mother’s arms and felt her guide him to the couch. His heart slowed, and he forced a deep breath.

“Mama...Mama, I...I had a d-dream and I couldn’t f-find a-anyone and I think there’s a m-m-m-monster upstairs.” Seth felt his mother’s arms tighten around him as breathing became still easier. He was okay. Mom and Roman were there, and he was safe. No human spiders. No huge webs. No steamed flies. Suddenly exhausted, he let his head fall to his mother’s shoulder.

“Shhh…” Lily’s voice was gentle and soft. “I’m here, bub. You’re okay. Just a dream, bub. And I’m pretty sure there aren’t any monsters upstairs.”

The memory caused Seth to sit up straight, fear coursing through him again.

“No, Mama...Mom...something is up there. In the closet. I heard it. It was scratching and moaning and...and...it’s gotta be a monster. Or a ghost. Or something.”

Roman stood.

“I’ll go check,” he said. Lily hugged Seth tighter, rubbing his back to soothe him, and when Roman returned there was a smile on his face.

“Look, Seth,” he commanded. He was holding a tiny kitten.

“What? What is THAT thing?” Seth demanded, but his mother was already reaching for the frightened, tiny creature.

“Aww...how on earth did you get in there?” Lily cooed to the kitten. Seth studied it carefully.

It was the smallest thing Seth had ever seen; it literally sat in the palm of Lily’s hand with room to spare, and it mewled and shivered. It was almost all black with a white right ear, a pink nose, and tiny white spots on its toes. Lily handed it to him. It immediately crawled up into the crook of Seth’s neck and nuzzled him.

“I don’t think it has a Mama,” Seth whispered. He felt his own mother’s arms tighten around him and wondered if this was a sign. Here he was, separated from his own biological mother too soon, but now planted snugly in the arms of the woman who became his mother by choice, and who had taken care of him from the very beginning, when he was tiny and fragile and in desperate need of someone. Now he was holding this tiny animal that was crying and obviously also in desperate need of someone.

“Mom? Can I keep it?” Seth looked into Lily’s eyes, pleading silently. He knew by her expression that she wasn’t about to say no, so he didn’t mind her response.

“Well...we’ll have to see what Dad thinks, Seth. That’s seven cats,” she ran her fingers through his hair. “She does seem to have taken a liking to you, though, hasn’t she?”

“How do you know it’s a she?” Seth whispered, afraid now to disturb the snuggly bundle that was purring into his neck.

“Just a hunch,” Lily said with a smile. “Just a hunch.”

“Well...boy or girl, I think I’m going to name it Spider. Like the Itsy Bitsy Spider, not mean biting spiders or spider humans.”

“Spider humans?” Roman wondered.

“Yeah...it’s a long story. Hey, Mom?” Seth asked uncertainly,

“What’s for dinner tomorrow night?”

When her answer was smothered chicken, Seth had never been more relieved.

 

____________________________________________________

 

Meanwhile, Dean was outside with Tony, completely oblivious to the fact that their family had just grown again.

“You, uh, have a disagreement with the sand, there, Deano?” Tony asked softly as he approached.

Dean ignored him, and continued to angrily poke the ground with the stick. Tony tried again.

“Has Roman made you angry?” Dean’s father sat down in the sand about 3 feet away from him, and he watched as Tony began burying his own feet.

“Roman didn’t do anything. You and Mom did,” Dean knew this was unfair, and it wasn’t true, but he couldn’t think of anything else to say.

Tony sat silently for awhile, and then held his hand out.

“May I borrow your stick?” Dean handed it to him and wondered exactly what he had up his sleeve. Instead of saying anything else though, his father began poking the sand with it.

“If you’re trying to prove a point,” Dean began, then stopped. He didn’t WANT to talk about it, he reminded himself.

“No. No, I have no point,” said Tony slowly. “But I’m kind of pissed off too, so I was curious about whether this would help or not.”

“Is it?” Dean questioned.

“Not really. Was it good for you?”

Dean fought down a small chuckle, then sighed.

“Not really. Why are YOU pissed, Dad?”

“I’ll tell you if you’ll tell me,” came the reply.

Dean sighed again.

“It’s not that...I just hate her,” he finally said. “I fucking hate her, Daddy.”

Tony didn’t even flinch at Dean’s use of the curse word. Instead he turned to Dean.

“Shelby?” Tony said it in a questioning voice, but they both knew it wasn’t a question at all. Dean nodded.

“You know what? I can’t,” said Tony. “I get it. I WANT to hate her. And I understand why you do. But I just can’t make myself do it.”

“Why not?” Dean whispered.

“Because she helped complete my family, Dean.”

Dean froze. He hadn’t really thought about it like that.

“If it hadn’t been for her,” Tony continued, “then Mom and I wouldn’t have you and where would we be then?”

“You’d have found another kid,” Dean reached for the stick and started poking again. “Or you would have been happy with just Roman and Seth. Or something.”

“Dean, do you believe in fate?”

“I don’t know. Why?”

“Because when you think about it...Mom and I never wanted just one child. We always figured we’d have lots, but by the time we got our hands on Roman, we were so worn out from trying that it never even occurred to us to keep trying or stop trying or talk to Cassie or do anything else to try and grow our family. And then one day, you walked into that community center and met your brother. And it happened to be at time when you really needed it the most, and we happened to be able to become your foster parents, and now we are a happy family of five...shit doesn’t just happen, Dean. Not like that anyway. Stepping in dog crap just happens, or catching a cold, or falling off your bike, those things just happen. Fate happens when something was meant to be. So maybe we still could’ve been okay without you, only because we wouldn’t have known what we were missing, but I wouldn’t trade you for all the tea in China, boy. I can’t even fathom my life without my middle son, and yeah. Everything had to line up exactly perfectly to get here, but if you had never been born? Then NONE of it would’ve been possible. What she did to you? It makes me crazy. But she still brought you into the world, and for THAT, Dean, I am eternally thankful. One of the three things I’m most proud of in my whole life is that I get to be your Dad. I love you. Mama loves you. Roman and Seth, they love you. This family would have a big hole in it without you, and it’s all because of Shelby, and I just can’t hate her, knowing that.”

Dean didn’t say anything. There was absolutely nothing to add to that. He put down the stick, and his dad held his arms open. Dean crawled into them gratefully and rested his head on Tony’s shoulder.

“You know, Dean...some day, this adoption thing, it’s going to happen. One way or another, we’ll make it happen. If I have to wait until the day you turn 18, then so be it. But that’s okay, if that’s the way it works. You’re always going to be my boy. Your mama’s baby. The middle brother. Your spot is secure, buddy. No matter how or when it happens. Okay?”

This time, Dean couldn’t speak for fear of beginning to cry, so he just nodded against Tony’s shoulder. They sat there for quite awhile before getting to their feet and walking back to the house together. When the got there, a sight awaited them.

Seth was asleep on Lily on the couch. There was a kitten snuggled against his neck. Roman was curled up on the loveseat with Honey Badger reading.

“What is Seth doing with a cat?” Dean demanded to know.

“Well…” Lily began. “I’m still not sure how it happened, but it wound up in you guys’ closet. She couldn’t get out. Bub wants to keep her...”

Tony sighed.

“And you pretended you had to ask me first?” Lily laughed.

“Well...I did say that, yeah. But seriously, look at this. Can we really tell him he can’t keep it?”

Tony grinned.

“No. I guess we can’t, can we. Okay. What’s one more, right?”

Dean groaned.

“Why does Seth get a cat?”

“Do YOU want a cat?” Lily asked him quizzically.

“No...but I want a gecko.”

Dean’s parents exchanged looks.

“A gecko, huh?” Tony asked.

“Yeah. Like those insurance commercials.”

“Well, sweets, when we get home, we’ll see what we can do, okay?” Lily smiled at Dean. “You okay?”

“Yeah. I’m fine. I’m tired though. I’m going to bed.”

“Okay, sweetness. I’ll come up in a bit to check on you. Dean? I love you.”

“I love you too, Mama,” said Dean, before heading upstairs to his bed.

Chapter Text

Since the beginning of time, it felt, Seth had required all kinds of therapy.

In the beginning, he was in therapy constantly; in fact, that’s what he did when the his brothers were at school. He went to a child psychiatrist, a counselor who specialized in sexual abuse cases, and a physical therapist every single day. The physical therapy was necessary to help him build some muscle, because at the group home he’d spent so much time strapped to a bed that once he was free, he could walk just fine but he struggled with running from time to time, and P.T. was also sort of an outlet. Once his legs were stronger, he was allowed to start lifting light weights. He also saw a second counselor twice a week just as a buffer, and he saw an occupational therapist on those days as well. The O.T. was kind of like his fun time; he learned to swim there, he got to run, got to play with remote control cars and things that required fine motor skills, and the O.T. even had a miniature golf course.

Now, he was down to seeing his abuse counselor once a week, his psychiatrist once a week, and his O.T. once a month. They all met with Lily and Tony once every month to discuss Seth’s progress, and occasionally Seth joined them. During one such meeting in June, after they returned from Galveston, Dr. Bushman made a suggestion.

“Seth, have you ever gone to summer camp?”

Tony saw Seth hesitate, then shake his head.

“Would you like to?”

Seth shook his head harder.

“No...no, I don’t think...I mean...I’m not sure...no. I don’t think I would.”

“Okay. So tell me some things that you and I have really been working on when we have our talks,” Dr. B. said.

“Umm...how to not be anxious around new people, so I can make some friends. And how to calm down when I wake up at night.”

Hearing Seth’s admission that he had no friends hurt Tony to the core, even though it was true. He just wasn’t comfortable enough with unfamiliar people to allow those walls to come down.

“Yeah. Now, there’s a camp in a couple of weeks for boys like you who’ve been abused and some of them have similar challenges. I was thinking you might like it.”

Seth looked from Lily to Tony.

“I...I don’t…” he stammered. Tony instantly recognized the fear in Seth’s eyes and he rested a comforting hand on his bicep.

“Why don’t you tell us more about it?”

Dr. Bushman pulled out some brochures.

“I’ve done this for a few years now, and you’ve made real progress in less than two years, Seth, which is why I think you might really enjoy this now. It’s called Camp Triumph. It’s a week long. What we would do is show you the entire list of activities that are offered and you would get to pick and choose what sounds like fun for you. You’ll also choose an activity that you think may be difficult for you and you practice that one all week. That’s your Triumph. There’s a group therapy session every day, and they do activities as well, but then pretty much everything else you get to decide for yourself. So if you wanted to do arts and crafts or go horseback riding, or whatever combination sounds fun, you could. We end every day with a bonfire and roast marshmallows.”

“Ooh, look, bub,” Lily was looking through the brochure. “There’s horses, and hiking and crafts, and there’s also swimming and canoes and an obstacle course!”

Seth looked up with interest at this.

“Hey---archery and sand volleyball, too!” Tony had to admit the place looked like fun, but he highly doubted Seth would go for being away from his family.

“Every camper gets an adult buddy to work with,” said Dr. B. “That’s helpful for things like the rock climbing wall.”

“There’s a rock climbing wall?” Seth asked.

“He’s always wanted to do that,” Lily murmured. “This sounds kind of fun, Seth. All of this cool stuff to do...what do you think?”

Seth froze immediately and rested his head against Lily’s neck.

“No...no, I don’t think I really want to do that,” he whispered. Tony sighed. They’d been close.

“Why not, Seth?” Dr. B. asked him gently.

“Because I don’t like strange people, and you all know that,” Seth whispered, not looking up. Lily began stroking his curls.

“Remember what we’ve talked about, buddy?” Dr. B. wasn’t giving up. Neither was Seth though.

“I know. I know, but I can’t. I just…” he trailed off. Tony could tell he was getting upset, and began to move to end the conversation, but Dr. B. leaned forward and rested her hands on Seth’s knees.

“You can. If you don’t want to, that’s okay. But don’t say you can’t, bud. That’s not true.”

“No...no, I want...I mean...I don’t…” Seth was really getting upset now.

“Listen to me. Take a breath, please,” Tony was ready to scream, but Dr. Bushman was clearly completely in control.

“Nobody is going to be upset with your choice, whatever the choice is. Mama and Daddy and I and everyone else in this room are completely okay with whatever you want to do. But remember it’s very important to separate what you want from what you believe you are capable of. Remember how we talked about that back when you were deciding about going camping with Dad?”

Seth’s breathing had returned to normal and he nodded slowly.

“You do not have to go. Tell me what you WANT, Seth. Forget for a minute about what’s frightening you and let’s focus on what you want.”

“I...I want to go and have fun. I...I want to climb that rock wall. And I’ve never paddled a canoe before. I want to be able to...I want to be a normal kid.”

“What do you suppose might happen if you go?”

“I...I don’t know,” Seth whispered.

“You do, or you wouldn’t have reservations. It’s okay to say it, bud.”

“I might not be able to sleep,” Seth began.

“There will be a lot of boys there who have trouble sleeping. You won’t be the only one. Your buddy will be there for you to talk to if you can’t sleep and they’ll have night time activities for kids who have trouble with that.” Dr. B was getting through to Seth. Tony could tell.

“I might cry,” Seth continued, but he looked up from Lily.

“Is there anything wrong with crying?” Dr. B asked gently.

“No,” Seth whispered.

“Good boy,” Lily murmured to him.

“What if I get sick?” Seth asked. “Or what if I fall and break all my bones?”

“Channeling your inner Dean, are you?” Tony asked with a smile, and Seth smiled too.

“Well, there will be several nurses at the camp in case you get sick or hurt or even just get a little too overstimulated and need a spot to rest for a minute or two,” Dr. B said. “But can I tell you that in the seven years I’ve been a part of Camp Triumph, no one has ever broken all of their bones.”

Seth giggled again.

“What if...I don’t like my buddy?”

“Your buddy is going to be someone you know,” Dr. B said calmly.

“He is? Who?”

“I’m not sure but several of our male counselors are going to be there. I’ll make sure you don’t get stuck with a stranger. So long as you’ll promise me that you’ll try to make friends with some of the other counselors.” Tony was amazed. Dr. B had Seth eating out of her hand by now.

“Well…” Seth began slowly.

“It’s just a week. You’d go out on a Saturday morning on a bus, and then on the next Saturday, Mom and Dad and your brothers will be invited to join you for a big bonfire dinner, and they’ll take you home.”

“But...but what about Dean?”

“What about Dean?”

“Shouldn’t he get to come to camp too?” And there was Seth’s loophole.

“Hmm...you know, that’s a good point,” Dr. B. said. “We should ask him.”

“I’ll go if Dean goes,” said Seth resolutely. “He loves rock climbing.”

Tony shook his head as they packed up to go. Maybe he was wrong, but he had a feeling it was going to take more than rock climbing to convince Dean to go.

Turns out, he was wrong.

Dean was more than amenable to going to Camp Triumph with his little brother, proclaiming that he’d look after Seth in case he needed him. So the next week found them driving Dean and Seth to the bus. Lily was slightly tearful at the thought of two of her babies going to camp without her for a week, but Roman clapped them both on the back.

“I’m proud of you guys,” he said. “Can’t wait to hear all about it.”

Tony figured Roman couldn’t wait to have some quiet time either.

 

_____________________________

 

It had never really occurred to Seth that there were other kids with similar problems to his. He just didn’t know any, and he was so different from all of the other boys at school based on his shyness alone, nevermind that he was a foster child and he didn’t too well, and he was small for his age, and smarter than most of the other kids. No one ever bullied him at school, and Seth suspected no one would even if it hadn’t been for Roman and Dean, but even so, all of those factors combined to make a cocktail of difference that separated Seth from everyone else. The concept of meeting another kid his age who understood without him having to explain was intriguing.

He was glad Dean came too, though. Even if he could be fairly certain that Dean was primarily along for the rock wall and the campout food. Seth didn’t mind. Their mother had helped them pack everything the brochure said they would need: shorts, tshirts, bathing suits, lots of socks and underwear, extra shoes, sunscreen, soap, etc. She also stuck in some stamps and paper and envelopes.

“I expect you to write me at least once,” she said.

Now, reflecting on all of this as Seth sat next to Dean on the three-hour bus ride, he couldn’t decide whether he was scared or excited. A combination of both was probably accurate. Because the activities looked wicked fun and the food sounded amazing, but it was the counseling that he wasn’t at all sure about. He wondered how Dean intended to handle that, but figured his brother’s plan was probably to just sit and not offer anything up. Seth suspected he wouldn’t be required to talk, but he also knew he would be asked. He’d never done group therapy before. They’d tried a few times in the beginning, but Seth had been too skittish back then, and it had usually ended with Seth hiding under a chair sobbing until everyone had left the room and then his mother and Dr. B had to coax him out. Then he’d made so much progress so quickly that Dr. B had let the concept of groups go. He knew that Dean had done group a few times and while he didn’t like it, he tolerated it.

When they arrived at Camp Triumph, they were divided into their groups and Seth realized with dismay that he and Dean were not sleeping in the same cabin. He swallowed down panic.

“It’ll be okay,” Dean, realizing Seth’s fear, whispered into his ear. “I’ll sneak in after everyone else goes to sleep. Don’t worry.” This made Seth feel considerably better. As he made his way to a cabin, he noticed a boy watching him. The boy had red hair and freckles, and his eyes were brilliant blue. He quickly looked away when their eyes met.

Their eyes met again when they arrived at the cabin and realized that their beds were right next to each other. Seth began to slowly unpack, then paused when he realized there was a note from his mother under his t-shirts.

“Bub,
I know you’re going to have a great time at camp. I also know it’s kind of a scary thing, but I’m so proud of you for trying. I already miss you and you haven’t even left yet, but I can’t wait til I get to see you again and hear about all of the amazing things you did and all of the friends I know you will make. I love you, Seth Rollins. You make me proud every single day.
Love, Mama”

Seth felt tears well up in his eyes; he missed his mother. Suddenly he felt the bed dip next to him. It was the red-headed boy.

“You’re Seth,” he said quietly. Seth nodded, wondering how on earth he had known that, until he realized that his name was on the luggage tag on his duffel.

“I’m Noah,” the boy said, his voice still quiet. “Are you homesick?”

Seth nodded again, then said,

“I didn’t think I was, but my mom left me this note…”

He handed the note to Noah, who read it silently.

“Your Mom sounds amazing,” he finally said.

“She is. Technically she’s my foster mom but she and my dad are trying to adopt us.”

“I’m a foster kid too,” Noah said. “Who is us?”

“My foster brothers. There are three of us.”

“I’ve got two brothers too. Biological though. There weren’t many foster homes willing to take all three of us,” Noah confided. “So...how old are you?”

“I turned 14 last month,” replied Seth. “How about you?”

“Two months ago. Do you like Harry Potter?” Noah asked. Seth just grinned.

Later on at dinner, he told Dean he didn’t have to sneak out.

The first night, Seth couldn’t fall asleep, so he and his buddy (who ended up being a counselor Seth knew named Jermaine) played cards in the rec room until he finally got sleepy. The second night it stormed, which meant he wasn’t coming out from under his blanket, period, but his new friend Noah seemed to understand, so he laid under Seth’s bed and talked to him, and then they let Dean come in with them, and he felt infinitely better after that. By the third night, Seth was too exhausted to do anything but sleep.

The days were extremely fun, though. He and Dean had signed up for a lot of the same activities, and he had a few with Noah as well. Seth and Noah had a lot in common. It felt different, hanging out with someone who wasn’t Roman or Dean, but Seth liked it. They discovered they were both the youngest, both loved reading, both did well in school. Both enjoyed sports but neither played on any sort of team. And they were both determined to make it to the top of the rock wall before camp was over. Seth had watched as Dean scaled it on the very first day. It didn’t surprise him, either; Dean was pretty athletic and not nearly as scrawny as Seth, so it made sense. When Seth tried it, he got barely halfway up before his fingers gave out and he let go and swung from the safety tether. Noah didn’t fare much better. It was still pretty fun, though, and Seth was willing to keep practicing.

They rode horses. They hiked and climbed trees. They practiced the obstacle course, and fell into the lake more than once, but the obstacle course was one thing where Seth’s smallish stature was actually an advantage. He was able to pull himself across the hanging rings and zip line with ease. Seth and Jermaine and Noah and his buddy, Alex, paddled a canoe across the lake, and once they’d mastered that, they were allowed to try a kayak with no adults. Everything would have been perfect, except for group.

Seth was never made to speak, but just listening to things and feelings that had happened to the others was hard enough. It made Seth want to curl up in a ball and cover his ears, so he wouldn’t have to hear it, but he knew he couldn’t do that. Knowing there were other kids that had experienced similar trauma just...didn’t make him feel any better.

 

____________________________

 

Dean, meanwhile, had absolutely no issue spilling his guts in group.

“Yeah, so my first mom was addicted to meth and cocaine, and she was really in need of a fix one night, so she offered me up to her boyfriend in exchange for drugs,” he had said matter of factly. “And I’m over it, or I would be, if people didn’t keep asking me to tell them all about it.”

That was pretty much the end of Dean sharing in group. He listened, though, and a couple of times, he spoke up about a few of the things he had learned. To one red-headed boy named Patrick, he said,

“I get how you’re feeling but you’ve got to remember there’s nothing wrong with YOU. A grown man getting his jollies off a kid has something wrong with him. You were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Took me awhile to realize that so was I. But we’re both out now right?”

Patrick had nodded, and later that afternoon Dean noticed him hanging out with that kid who’d become pals with Seth. Then he realized they must be brothers. He approached Patrick later on.

“So, uh, I didn’t come here with the intention of making friends or anything, but I noticed our little brothers seem to be getting tight,” Dean said. Patrick grinned.

“So Seth is your brother? He’s all Noah talks about. He and Seth did this, he and Seth did that.”

“Ain’t they adorable?” Dean said with a smirk and Patrick laughed.

“It’s been hard, you know? We’ve finally got a foster family who’s willing to keep us together, but for awhile it was just me and Noah. We’ve got an older brother too, but he’s not here ‘cuz no one ever molested him and ever since he turned 17, he’s busy being a big man on campus anyway,” Patrick told Dean.

“ We’ve got a big brother too,” Dean said, “and he’s not here for the same reason. I came along to keep an eye on Seth. And you know, have fun climbing the wall.”

“Have you done the obstacle course yet?” Patrick wanted to know.

“I’m working on it but it’s a bitch,” Dean muttered, and Patrick nodded his agreement.

As determined as Seth was to master the rock wall, Dean was intent on killing that obstacle course. First, you had to run through the sand and get up a very steep wall. Dean could do that; that was simple. Then you had to hop from platform to platform, kind of like a frog jumping on lily pads, and Dean could do that too. However, then there was a set of rings out over the lake. The idea was you’d swing from ring to ring and when you got to the end you jumped onto a platform. Dean had trouble judging the distance, but eventually he mastered that as well, and the zip line was easy. The big problem was the balance beam. The last part of the course was a long beam that you ran across. Dean fell into the lake every single time he attempted it.

This frustrated him to no end; he wasn’t a damn quitter, and he only had a handful of days to get this right.

He had a cheering section, though. Patrick, Seth, and Noah, and their buddies, and Dean’s own buddy Joe, all constantly encouraged him.

In all, he was having the time of his life. He was there when Seth needed him, he was trying new things, and he was spending copious amounts of time outdoors. What could be better?

 

______________________________

 

By Thursday, the topic in group had turned to taking a stand against your abusers. Seth wondered if he could possibly still avoid speaking up. As he listened to the other boys, he realized he had to say something; so many of them were terrified to face the person who had harmed them. So when there was a break in the conversation, Seth raised his hand.

The counselor running the group, a woman named Amy, asked him what he would like to say. Seth tensed for a moment, not at all sure he could do it, but then he felt Jermaine’s hand on his shoulder.

“When I was a baby, my mother left me with my father,” Seth began. “I found out earlier this summer that she has schizophrenia, and I guess she felt she couldn’t take care of me. I don’t know if she knew how he was or not, but for as long as I can remember, my father hurt me. Beat me and stuff. Tied me up and made me sit in the closet. I remember once, he knelt on my shoulders so he could whip my bottom with a belt and I had no idea what I had ever done wrong.

“He never touched me...you know, like that. But when I was 7, the state found out about the abuse and pulled me. I went to my first foster home, and the woman there beat me worse. So I got taken from her, and the next family, the father...he...molested me. That was the first time that had ever happened, and I felt so...disgusting. I hid it from my social worker, not that he probably would’ve been much help anyway.

“When he realized I was going to tell on him soon, they shuffled me off again. By then I was almost 10, and that’s when I got sent to the first group home. It might have been okay, but it was overcrowded and about a month later, I had to go to a new home. It was horrible. I was one of the smallest boys there.”

Seth began to cry then, remembering what it had been like.

“Once I’d been there a couple of months, one night, one of the oldest boys, who was like, 17 and huge, came into my room and he...he, um...he raped me. At first I didn’t even know what had happened to me. I didn’t know anything about stuff like that. I just knew it hurt. A lot. And it kept happening. No matter how I cried or screamed, no one ever stopped it and they knew. The adults knew. I wasn’t the only one it was happening to. And every time it did happen, I just...gave up a little.

“I stopped eating. I couldn’t sleep. I just wanted to die, like every day I’d wake up in the morning and cry because I was still there. I stopped talking. No one was listening to me anyway. Then one day...I call them my angels. Some prospective parents had been to the group home and seen stuff that concerned them, so they reported it to DCF. They launched an investigation, and one day, the police came. I didn’t know they were there to help me; I was so weak I could hardly walk by then, and when the officer lifted me up to carry me out of there, I tried to scream and fight with him. I had no idea that he was taking me to safety.

“In the hospital, I met my foster family. I have parents and brothers now, and last summer, there was a trial. The people who ran that home were being charged with endangering children, and I...I had to testify. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I hated every minute. But I’m still happy and proud that I did it because those people went to jail and now they can never hurt another kid. I can’t change what happened to me, no matter how much I want to. But if no other boy goes through that because of those people...it was worth it.”

When Seth was through speaking, everyone clapped. And every adult in the room had tears in their eyes. He sat down and felt strangely...lighter. After group was over, a boy named Drew approached Seth.

“I have to testify soon, against my father,” Drew confided. “I think I can do it now. Thank you for sharing your story.”

Seth knew he would never doubt his ability to share again.

 

_______________________________

 

Friday was the last day of camp before Mom, Dad, and Roman would come to pick them up on Saturday, and Dean was out of time. He still hadn’t completed the obstacle course. He scaled that wall over and over, but that wasn’t where his sights were set. Then Patrick made a suggestion.

“Try it with your eyes closed. Don’t look at your feet. Just envision them doing what they need to do.”

It worked. Then it worked a second time and a third. Dean did it. He really did it.

By the next morning, however, Seth still hadn’t made it all the way up the wall. He never gave up trying, but Dean could tell he was disappointed.

“I think you should do it for the parents anyway,” Dean told him.

“But I haven’t...I haven’t been triumphant. And that’s whole point.” Seth argued.

“How can you possibly say you haven’t been triumphant? Seth, you went to sleep away camp. You made friends, including Noah, who we both know you’re still going to hang out with after we go home. You inspired a kid to stand up to the person who hurt him. You’ve had more triumphs than anyone here. You know Mom and Dad don’t care if you never make it up that wall. They’re proud of you for never giving up---and so am I.”

Seth nodded.

“Okay. Okay, I’ll try one more time.”

Mid-afternoon Saturday, parents began showing up. When Dean and Seth saw the Escalade, they raced towards it. Roman was out of it before it even became to a complete stop.

“You guys can never leave me again!” Roman exclaimed. “I’ve never been so bored in my life!”

“You were an only child for like three years before us, Rome,” Dean pointed out.

“Yeah, well, now I know what I was missing.”

They both startled by a shriek.

“MAMA!” Seth yelled happily, propelling himself into Lily’s waiting arms.

“Hi, bub!” Lily hugged him tight, reaching for Dean with her other arm. “Hello, sweetie. How was your week?”

“It was amazing!” Dean said. “I’m really glad we came, Mom.”

They introduced their family to Patrick and Noah, who by then had been reunited with their foster parents, Mike and Lindsey, and their oldest brother Simon. As the parents talked, they discovered that the Miller brothers didn’t live far from the Girardi’s at all. Tony was already inviting them over for a cookout when Dean began to get ready to show his parents his Triumph.

He made it through everything, including the balance beam, but then as part of his victory celebration, he leaped into the lake anyway. Then, because he could, he began chasing Roman begging for a hug. Everyone except Seth began laughing. Seth just looked...nervous. Dean figured he was afraid of the rock wall.

Seth didn’t need to be nervous, though.

Jermaine strapped him in to the safety tethers, and he began to climb. Dean and Roman screamed encouragement. About two thirds up, Seth stopped, seemingly losing his footing, but he didn’t let go. He waited where he was for a moment before continuing his ascent. And then, the next thing Dean knew, Seth was standing at the top.

Dean couldn’t hear anything for the screaming, but he was completely overcome with pride and happiness. Seth had achieved his Triumph. Even though it had totally been a triumphant week for both of them, he’d done it. Dean couldn’t wait to hug the crap out of his brother.

Chapter Text

Three weeks later the family was home again when one Friday afternoon, Cassie drove up to their house. Dean answered the door, figuring that she must be there to see his parents and Roman. They hadn’t yet had his adoption hearing.

“Dean!” Cassie always seemed so happy to see the boys. “You’ve grown another two inches, I swear.”

“I’m as tall as Mom now,” Dean said proudly. “Hang on. I’ll go get her and Roman.”

“Actually…” Cassie paused, then went on. “You go get your Mom, but actually I’m here to see you and Seth. Think you can find him for me?”

This seemed strange to Dean, but he agreed. A few moments later found Cassie, Lily, Seth, and Dean sitting in the living room with cold drinks. Roman joined out of pure curiosity.

“Is Dad at work?” Cassie asked the boys.

“Yes,” Seth answered. “When he gets home, we’re driving to San Antonio. We’ve been packing.”

“Visiting your grandparents?”

Seth nodded. Dean noticed him absently playing with their mother’s fingers. He seemed anxious, which made total sense. A surprise visit from Cassie was welcome but rare. As the boys’ social worker, it was entirely within her right to just show up at the house to check on their welfare, but in their particular situation she seemed to know she didn’t have to.

“Well, let’s get to it,” Cassie began. “I’ve got some news on the adoption front for both Dean and Seth.” Dean watched his mother closely. Something in her face had changed, but Dean couldn’t peg what, and he didn’t think he liked it. Seth’s grip on her fingers tightened, and she tightened her hand around his, then reached for Dean’s as well.

“Okay...tell me something good, Cass,” Lily’s voice didn’t betray her; she sounded perfectly like herself.

“I got better than good.” Cassie smiled broadly. “First of all, Seth, we’ve located your biological mother.”

Seth gave Cassie a defiant look and then turned and rested his head against their mother.

“That’s NOT good and I’m NOT going.”

“Going where?” Cassie asked softly.

“Away.”

“Bub...no one’s going to take you away. Right, Cassie?”

“Oh, Seth. Of course we’re not. Your mother, Adria, is alive. She lives in a home for mentally disabled adults. She’s in no condition to care for a child. The state has determined that while she has committed no crimes, she’s not fit to be a parent. They’re in the process of terminating her parental rights, and as soon as that happens, your parents will be able to adopt you.”

Seth’s grip on their mother’s hand didn’t loosen, and he raised it up so it was resting in his hair. Lily instinctively began to stroke it gently. Dean watched both of their faces. His mom’s seemed to relax, but Seth’s lips were trembling.

“Bub?” Lily questioned. Seth just buried his face into her then, his shaking shoulders giving away his sobs. Dean didn’t understand; Seth was supposed to be happy. He considered saying as much, but then he felt Roman’s hand on his shoulder and he remained silent.

“It’s okay, Seth,” Lily whispered. “It’s okay. It’s a lot to take in, huh?” Seth nodded but didn’t speak.

“We’ll be okay,” Lily said calmly. She maintained her grip on Seth, but Dean felt her other arm tighten around him. “So how about this one?”

Cassie turned to Dean. He couldn’t look her in the eye, but then she took his hands.

“Dean...I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but Shelby Ambrose was found dead this morning.”

Everybody in the room sat there in stunned silence. Dean felt himself begin to shake his head, though he didn’t think he was really controlling it. Lily sucked in a
sharp breath. Roman’s hand on his arm got even tighter. And Seth’s shoulders stilled.

“She...she’s...she’s dead? What...what does? How? Why? Mama?” Dean knew he sounded like a wimp but he couldn’t help it. He had absolutely no idea what was happening, but it didn’t sound good. Furthermore, he figured he ought to be happy at this news, but something inside him was not happy, not even a little. Lily pulled him close.

“Oh, goodness. Oh, sweets. It’s okay, Dean. Seth. Boys. Do you understand what Cassie’s saying?” Dean shook his head and Lily gazed into his eyes.

“It means that I get to adopt all three of my boys,” she said quietly. Dean froze. Seth continued to sob and shake. Roman and Lily had tears in their eyes too. Slowly Dean looked around to Cassie.

“How did she die?” He whispered.

“She overdosed,” Dean knew this would be the answer before Cassie said it. That didn’t make it easier, but it did make sense. A spark lit inside him.

“I’m getting adopted?”

“Dean,” Lily’s voice was soft in his ear. “You are most certainly getting adopted.”

At that, Dean couldn’t help it anymore. He let the tears that had been threatening to flow loose. Roman joined them in a group hug. Cassie just sat there smiling. Lily kissed Dean and Seth on their foreheads.

“We need to call Daddy,” she murmured.

 

_________________________________

 

Tony drove as fast as he could towards home and his boys. And Lily too, of course. Being in the FBI definitely had it’s perks. So speed limit forgotten, he sped down the highway.

He was thrilled to see that Cassie’s car was still in the driveway; she was the first person he hugged when he ran into the living room. He came to Roman next and then he sat down on the couch and scooped Seth into his arms and held him tight, thrilled when his youngest held on to him in return. He thought back to the time when Seth didn’t want anything to do with him, and he held his son out at arm’s length. Seth smiled tearfully at him.

“You’re okay with this, Seth?” Tony whispered.

“Yes,” Seth whispered back.

“I love you, my son,” Tony replied.

“I love you too, Daddy.”

Tony turned to Dean.

“Fate,” was all he said. Dean nodded in return.

“Fate,” he said. Then they hugged tight, and for a long time. Finally, Tony turned to Lily. He reached for her hands and pulled her to his feet. As the three boys and Cassie watched, he kissed her deeply.

“I love you, Mama,” he said softly.

“I love you too, Daddy,” Lily was crying buckets. They turned to their boys.

“Come here,” Lily murmured. That was all they needed to hear. All three of them leaped into their parents’ embrace, and then all five of them were clinging to each other for dear life. There was hugging and crying, and holding and kisses, and even Cassie was crying as she watched from the side.

Lily turned to her.

“When?”

Cassie grinned.

“As soon as possible. I’ve got the papers right here. Would you like it if I tried to get all three adoption hearings on the same day?”

“Yes. Yes, we would love that,” Tony answered her. That would seal the deal, he knew. Adopting all of them on the same day would be epic. Perfect. He couldn’t wait.

Chapter Text

The boys spent the drive to San Antonio trying out their new names. Roman Girardi. Dean Girardi. Seth Girardi.

“Which one sounds best, Mom?” Dean wondered. Lily refused to play THAT game, though.

“I think they all sound handsome. What about your middle names? Are you going to keep those?”

Middle names were rarely if ever used in the Girardi household, mainly because Dean and Seth both shared their middle names with their biological fathers, Bradley and Matthew respectively, so no one wanted to hear it. Roman’s full name, Roman David, was okay, but while Lily and Tony tended to be big nickname people, they never did get into the habit of calling them by their full names.

“You mean we get a choice?” Seth asked dubiously.

“Of course you do. They’re your names.”

“Well, I want a different one,” said Dean.

“Me too!” Seth exclaimed.

They both looked at Roman expectantly, and he shrugged.

“I’m down with changing mine. I just don’t---what’ll we change them to?”

“I want to be named after Daddy,” said Seth. “Can I Mom?”

“Well…” Lily began, but Dean cut her off.

“No way! I want to be named after Dad!”

 

Then Roman interjected.

“Sorry, brothers, but I’m the oldest, so I get to be named after Dad. Right, Mama?”

Lily just laughed, and she noticed Tony’s shoulders shaking as he drove.

“Looks like it’s either all of you or none of you,” she said.

“Well, it can’t be all of us,” Dean whined.

“Then I guess it’s none of you,” Lily replied. “You could always go with Anthony, Angelo, and James, after Dad and your grandfathers?”

“But then someone still has to be Anthony. Who gets that name?” Seth asked?

“I already told you, since I’m the oldest…” Roman began.

“No. You already get everything ‘because you’re the oldest’, Rome. We’ll draw straws or something.”

“But guys, if we do that, one of us will have to be Angelo…” Seth pointed out.

Lily cracked up laughing at the looks on all of their faces; apparently Angelo was not a name any of them especially liked.

“What if we did some kind of theme?” Roman suggested.

“Themes are dumb,” Dean muttered.

“Like what?” Seth wanted to know. “Names from Harry Potter?”

Dean glared at his brother.

“No way.”

“No, I meant like something we all like. I don’t know...John, Jacob, and James from Halo?”

“I don’t like Halo that much. How about something from Call of Duty?” Seth asked.

“WHICH Call of Duty?” Dean said.

“Ugh...why is this so hard?” Roman groaned. “Mama, if you had given birth to us, what would you have named us?”

The question silenced Dean and Seth; this was surprisingly not a topic that had ever been discussed before. Lily thought for a moment.

“Well...let’s see. We kicked around a lot of names back when we were still in baby mode,” Lily considered their question. “What do you think, T?”

“Hmm...you’re right, we did kick around a lot of names,” Tony agreed.

“We definitely intended to name our first son Nicholas,” Lily said.

“Yeah, and I think our second pick was Benjamin,” Tony continued.

“Ah, that’s right,” Lily smiled softly. “We’d have called them Nicky and Benjy.”

“Nick and Ben,” Tony corrected.

Lily laughed.

“Well, we’d agreed on the names anyway,” she said. “The nicknames would’ve been up in the air.”

“Okay,” Dean said impatiently. “Nicholas and Benjamin. What would the third one have been?”

“Your mom always loved William,” Tony answered. “I think I’d have let her go with that.”

“Roman Nicholas, Dean Benjamin, Seth William,” Lily mused.

The three boys looked at each other, recognition dawning on all of their faces. The names were perfect.

After a late arrival in San Antonio, followed by a long celebration over the pending adoptions, it was nearly 2 am when the boys finally went to bed. Their grandparents had squeezed them, kissed them, and squeezed them some more. Both uncles sandwiched Lily between them in a tight hug, and she cried some more. After the boys turned in for the evening, Lily checked on each of them, making sure they were tucked in and cozy in their beds at Nana and Granddad’s house. Roman and Dean went to sleep immediately, but Seth was still awake when Lily peeked in on him, so she sat down beside him on his bed.

“Mom? I like my new name,” Seth whispered.

“Good. Know why I love William so much, bub?” Lily asked him, and when Seth shook his head she continued.

“It means ‘strong warrior.’ My William would’ve been a strong kid. Just like my Seth William is.”

Seth smiled as his eyelids grew heavy, but he managed to mumble something before he fell asleep.

“I love you, Mama.”

“I love you too, baby. I love you so much,” came Lily’s whispered reply.

 

________________________________

 

The adoption went off without a hitch, and when the judge congratulated Lily and Tony and introduced Roman Nicholas Girardi, Dean Benjamin Girardi, and Seth William Girardi, Lily cried. The three boys surrounded their parents and the love emitting from the family could be felt all the way to New Orleans.

Roman about cried himself when he received his football jersey for his sophomore year and it had Girardi printed on the back with his number. The first time he heard “Roman Girardi” over the loudspeaker at a football game, he had to compose himself and remember that he was supposed to be chasing a ball.

As soon as the season ended, Tony and Roman took their trip to San Francisco, just the two of them. It was an absolute blast; the 9ers won the game and afterwards, he and his father walked down to Pier 39, then went to Ghirardelli Square for the famous ice cream sundaes. It was a short trip, but beyond worth the extra time bonding. In fact, they both had so much fun that they decided to take more trips just the two of them. And while they were there, his father had informed him again that he was so proud to be his father.

Right after Thanksgiving, he began learning to drive. His mother took him to the DMV to take his writing test for his learner’s permit. Before they left, Roman spent quite a bit of time brushing his hair; he wanted the picture on it to look perfect, and he only stopped to chase Dean when he began teasing him mercilessly. Seth looked on with his usual quiet curiosity, but he smiled at the sight of his brothers rolling around on the ground pretending to pound each other. Their mother intervened, scolding Dean and taking Roman to the bathroom so she could resume brushing. She told him he looked incredibly handsome, and it made his heart swell.

For Christmas, they went to Florida. They spent a week at Universal Orlando Resort, where Dean added Orlando to his Hard Rock collection. And the boys rode rides over and over for days. Seth teased Dean and Roman a little about riding roller coasters when they’d been afraid of a simple Ferris wheel, but it was all good-natured fun. They also spent an entire day at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, strictly for Seth’s benefit. Watching their baby brother, Roman and Dean agreed happily, was the best part of the trip; Seth had been so wide-eyed and happy. The entire trip was amazing.

Once they returned to Houston and started back at school, though, Dean’s antagonizing got worse. Roman wasn’t sure what was going on, but having Dean begging for his life in the back seat while Roman tried to drive his brothers and mother home from school did not help decrease the stress Roman was already under. Their mom warned Dean repeatedly to keep his mouth shut, but Dean continued to act like a jerk. It wasn’t unlike him to act like a jerk once in awhile, but it was definitely unlike him to keep it up once he’d been called on it.

Roman knew he should try to talk to his brother, but he just didn’t want to yet. He found himself gravitating towards Seth instead. That was difficult too, though. Roman could tell that the tension between him and Dean was bothering Seth a great deal, and Seth really didn’t seem interested in being around either one of them.

Then one afternoon, everything went to hell.

Lily was at work, but Tony had left the office early and picked the boys up from school, so of course, Roman was allowed to drive home. Dean began silently kicking the back of Roman’s seat, and somehow Tony didn’t notice. By now Roman was fairly schooled on what to do about Dean in this mood, and usually ignoring him worked but he didn’t stop. Roman didn’t miss the glares Seth was shooting Dean’s way, though, and once they made it home, he heard Seth hiss,

“Quit it. You’re being a moron.” Roman didn’t hear Dean’s response.

Roman retired to the living room to begin his homework and Seth joined him shortly after, though he didn’t seem to feel like talking to Roman. Then Dean came stalking into the room.

“You left your stupid backpack in the middle of the hallway and I tripped on it,” Dean accused. Roman was 99% sure he’d put his backpack in his bedroom, but he was determined not to take the bait. Instead he wordlessly got up and headed to the kitchen but on his way past, Dean bumped into him. Roman wasn’t sure it was on purpose, but he already had his hackles up and he bumped Dean right back. The bumping turned to shoving, and Roman could barely register Seth protesting in the background. Then, he and Dean went to shove each other at the same time---right as Seth tried to step between them. Before either of them could stop themselves, they made contact with their little brother and he flew through the air and landed face first through the coffee table.

“Oh God, SETH!” Roman screamed at the same time Dean yelled, “DAD!!!”

The coffee table was made of heavy cherry wood and marble. Roman didn’t need to see to know that Seth had not fared well. He knelt beside his brother, noting in panic the blood pooling under Seth’s face. They had to roll him over or he wouldn’t be able to breathe properly. Just then Tony flew into the room.

“What the HELL happened?”

Dean and Roman tripped over themselves trying to explain as Roman helped their father roll Seth to his back. The sight of his brother’s face made Roman sick to his stomach. There was a huge open gash under Seth’s right eye that trailed at a slant over the bridge of his nose and ended in another deep gash directly above his left eyebrow. Blood poured off of his face and dripped down to the carpet beneath him. Bruises had already begun to form

“Oh, shit. Seth? Talk to me, buddy. C’mon, buddy. Let me hear your voice.” Tony turned to Dean.

“Give me your shirt,” he commanded. Dean didn’t hesitate to peel his t-shirt off and hand it to their father, who rolled it up and pressed it to the gashes on Seth’s face. Seth moaned.

“Seth? Come on, bud. Talk to Dad. Come on, buddy,” Roman could tell Tony was desperate and that scared him.

“Dad?” Seth mumbled, then groaned again.

“That’s it, buddy. I’m here,” Tony checked the wounds on Seth’s face, but they continued to bleed. “I think you need some stitches, bub. Just lay nice and still for a sec.”
Tony turned to Roman.

“How did this happen?”

“He...Dean and I were...we were fighting, Dad. Seth tried to get between us and we knocked him through the table.” Just saying it out loud was enough to make Roman’s stomach roll. Seth was hurt and it was all their fault.

 

______________________________

 

Dean watched the whole thing completely horrified. What had he done? He was such a fucking idiot. Seth looked awful, absolutely terrible. Blood seeped through the t-shirt Dean had given his father, and he was already beginning to swell. He didn’t really seem to know what was going on either; Dean wondered if they’d broken his head. And then there was the look of fury on his father’s face.

“So what I hear you saying,” Tony’s voice was dangerous and soft, “is that you two were physically fighting with each other, and you wound up throwing Seth through the coffee table?”

Roman and Dean both nodded miserably.

“I want you,” their father began, his voice still deathly quiet, “to go to your bedrooms. I need to take Seth to the emergency room. While I am gone, you will not leave your rooms. I expect you to think about this. And I expect you to start thinking about some consequences. Seth, can you---hang on, buddy.”

Their father stood and left the room for a minute or two, then returned with an armful of clean towels. He gently wrapped one around Seth’s head, trying to stem the flow of the bleeding.

“Can you hold this right here?” Tony asked Seth, his voice now nothing but tender.

“I---I think so,” Seth croaked, then let out another moan. “What’s happening, Dad?”

“You’re gonna be okay, son. But I need to take you to the hospital to get stitched up. Keep talking to me okay? No sleeping just yet. Can you stand?”

From where Dean was, he could see that Seth’s pupils were the size of dimes, and he figured there was no way his brother would be walking anywhere, but then his father helped him up. He wobbled, clearly dizzy, but he managed to get to the garage door with Tony’s help. Tony called over his shoulder to Roman and Dean,

“Bedrooms. Now.”

Dean and Roman looked at each other. Dean couldn’t read his brother’s expression, but he suspected Roman was feeling similarly scared, angry, and guilty. Without a word, Dean got up and fled to his room.

He laid on his bed, miserable, trying to think of a suitable consequence that didn’t involve him and Roman having to move out. Dean knew they would have to make it up to Seth and he was willing to do just about anything for that. His chores for a month. His homework. Whatever. But he had a feeling that when his father said consequences, that wasn’t really what he meant.

They wouldn’t send him away, surely. They’d adopted him, dammit, and that meant that no matter how badly he screwed up, they promised to keep him anyway. But what if that wasn’t what it meant at all? It had never before occurred to him that maybe his parents didn’t really mean it; maybe they only did it to shut him up because Seth or Roman or even both of them was who they really wanted. A second later, Dean scolded himself.

“You’re an idiot,” he muttered at himself under his breath; being stupid wasn’t going to fix anything. He didn’t know what to do, though. He wanted to get his phone and text his father to see how Seth was; he wanted to text Seth and apologize and beg for forgiveness, but he knew neither of them would be checking their phones in the ER. Then Dean wondered if his father had called his mother. Surely he had. But still...perhaps if he called her himself and confessed everything before she could hear it secondhand, he could still save face, with her at least.

Dean found her name in his contacts and hit the call button, but as the call connected, he could hear the haunting sound of his little brother moaning. He should have known he would be too late; his mom may well have been working in that very hospital when his father arrived with Seth. Still, he felt compelled to tell her everything and was put out when he heard her say,

“What do you need, son?”

Not even hello. Dean’s heart sank lower.

“I...Mama?”

“Yes, Dean. What’s going on?”

Dean. She called him Dean. Not sweetie, or baby, or love.

“I just...is Seth---” At that moment, his mother interrupted him, speaking soothingly to Seth.

“Hang on. You’re being such a good boy, bub. I know this hurts. Squeeze Mama’s hand.” Then to Dean,

“Seth needs me right now. We’ll talk at home.” Then the call disconnected.

Damn.

I need you too, he wanted to scream. But he couldn’t even really be jealous, considering it was all his fault that any of them needed her right then. Dean could feel his anxiety rising. He was upset and angry with himself and scared for Seth, and he didn’t have a clue what he was supposed to do next.

 

_________________________________

 

Roman laid on his bed and stared at the wall. The entire situation was unbelievable and he couldn’t get Seth’s damaged face out of his head. Or the sound of the thud he made when he hit the table. Roman was legit terrified that they had seriously hurt their baby brother, and for what? Because he couldn’t handle Dean’s taunting? Sure, he hadn’t done anything (that he could think of anyway) that would justify Dean’s behavior, but still. He was the oldest; he was supposed to be strong and sturdy and set a good example. His parents must be so disappointed in him, and he couldn’t stand the thought of it.

He couldn’t think of a consequence that he found suitable. Really there was no good way to make this up to Seth. There was nothing to say except how sorry he was, and sorry didn’t seem like it was too appropriate in this case. He wished his parents would hurry and bring his brother home.

Roman considered going to see what Dean was doing, but paused when he remembered the look on his father’s face when he told them to stay in their rooms. Although their father wasn’t there…

Deciding it was worth disobedience just this once, armed with the excuse that they were brainstorming consequences in case they did get caught, Roman got up and slipped down the hall. His stomach growled impatiently; by now it was almost 7 and of course, there’d been no discussion of dinner. He wondered if he should fix something. He was starving, Dean was probably starving, and he doubted his parents had eaten. Maybe if they came home to a meal and a nice clean kitchen…

Arriving in Dean’s doorway, he announced his arrival.

“Dean!”

Dean had his back to his brother, but he turned to look at Roman when he heard his name.

“What? What are you doing? We’re supposed to be in our rooms.”

“I know that, but I had an idea. Come on.”

As Roman led Dean to the kitchen, he informed him of his plan. Dean stopped cold, though.

“Oh, no. You’re forgetting one very important thing here, Rome. Neither of us can cook.”

“Come on, dude. If you can read you can cook. I know there’s food; Mom just went shopping yesterday. Don’t you want to have dinner waiting when they get home?”

“Well...okay. You make whatever you want, but I’m sticking with salad. You can’t ruin salad.”

Roman sighed but agreed; it didn’t seem worth arguing with Dean. He opened the fridge; it was packed. Their mother always told them that cooking for them was an adventure because they were always hungry and would eat almost anything. He found a package of raw chicken breasts and pulled those out. Then he went digging and found his mother’s recipe for chicken Parmesan. That should be simple.

The first thing the recipe said to do was wash the chicken and pat it dry. Easy enough.

Roman began to fill the sink with water and a little soap. Dean watched with reserved curiosity from the kitchen island, where he was tearing lettuce into pieces.

“I don’t think that’s how Mom does it,” he told Roman stoicly.

“That’s what the recipe says,” Roman replied as he carefully washed each piece of chicken with soap and water. “Now pat dry---hey, Dean, hand me a dish towel.”

Once the chicken was washed and dried, Roman returned to the recipe.

“Dip chicken in egg and cover in breadcrumbs. Brown on each side.”

“Here,” said Dean helpfully. “Here’s an egg.”

“Thanks,” said Roman. “Now breadcrumbs...breadcrumbs.”

“How do you make those?” Dean wanted to know.

“It doesn’t say,” Roman answered. “But crumbs are just small pieces right? And we have bread.”

Dean nodded.

“Better use wheat,” he told his brother. “I bet that’s how you get it brown.”

“Good thinking,” said Roman. “See, this isn’t so hard. So now we need to get this into tiny pieces.”

“Wait, shouldn’t we cook the egg first?” Dean wondered.

“It doesn’t say to; it just says dip the chicken in the egg.”

“Yeah, I know, but raw egg makes you sick doesn’t it? We don’t want to poison the whole family.”

“Hmm...you’re right.”

While Roman cooked the egg, Dean tackled the job of breaking the bread into little pieces.

“These still look bigger than crumbs,” he complained. “Are you sure we’re doing this right?”

“This is what the directions say,” Roman muttered in response. “Maybe they shrink in the oven. Like when something shrinks in the dryer?”

“Rome, you’re a genius,” Dean beamed at his brother. “How’s the egg coming?”

“I think it’s done. I scrambled it.”

They tried for several minutes to dip the chicken in the egg, but the egg wouldn’t really stick. Finally they put the chicken pieces in a baking dish and scooped some egg onto each piece and then sprinkled their bread crumbs over the top.

“Now it says to add two jars of spaghetti sauce and top with shredded mozzarella and bake at 350͒ for 45 minutes.”

Dean found spaghetti sauce while Roman searched the fridge.

“Damn,” he said. “We don’t have shredded mozzarella. Only cheddar. Or Dad’s aged Swiss.”

“Use the Swiss,” Dean said. “It looks more like mozzarella so it’ll probably taste closer.”

Roman pulled out the package. Seven-year aged Swiss. He wrinkled his nose at the smell.

“Heating it must make the flavor simmer down,” he said hopefully. “How do we get it in little shreds like the cheddar?”

“I don’t know; they come that way,” Dean answered. “Let’s just cut some off with a knife. It’ll be cheesier that way anyway.”

Once Roman had the cheese on top, he stepped back and regarded his masterpiece. Dean was right; it really looked nothing like when their mother made it, but Roman didn’t think it looked that bad for a first go. He turned on the oven and then stuck the chicken parm in and closed the door. Then he set the timer for 45 minutes. It wasn’t too long before a very strong, Swiss cheesy smell began wafting out of the oven.

The boys looked at each other.

“Guess the heat doesn’t tone it down,” Dean choked out. “Let’s go in the living room while we wait.” Roman nodded.

“So...have you thought up a good consequence?” Roman asked Dean once they were seated side by side on the sofa.

“None that don’t require hanging,” Dean answered dully. “You know, Rome, if we got in trouble more often, thinking of ways to punish us would be way easier.”

Roman laughed drily.

“Maybe, but could you handle feeling like this more often than we do?”

Dean shook his head.

“Good point,” he said. “I can’t get the look on Dad’s face out of my head, or how Seth looked like hamburger meat.” He sighed and turned to his brother.

“Rome? I’m sorry.”

Roman looked at Dean.

“You’re apologizing to me?”

“Yeah, ‘cuz if I hadn’t been such a sandy little butthole---”

Roman couldn’t help it; he laughed out loud at that.

“Well, that’s one way to put it,” Roman said. “So what’s that all about anyway? Did I do something to make you angry?”

“No. You just turned 15 ½,” Dean muttered, staring at his feet.

“Well...yeah,” Roman said slowly. “And in June, so will you. And next November, so will Seth. So what? Are you jealous?”

“A little bit. Because you get everything first because you’re the oldest, and Seth’s the baby and he’s got his issues, so sometimes I feel...I don’t know. Like I have to act that way sometimes to get noticed.”

“Well, you sure got that,” Roman said. “But Dean...look, they notice you. We all do. None of us would be complete without you.”

“Yeah, I know,” Dean said. “It’s not just that. Sometimes I still just...feel like there’s a weight on me.”

“A weight?”

“Yeah, I...I don’t know, Rome. Most of the time I feel okay, ever since I started counselling, but every so often I just...I start to doubt...everything.”

“Hey. Dean. I think that...I think all three of us do that.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. I know I do. I bet Seth does too.”

“You? You’re like...perfect, Rome.”

“Me?”

“Yeah...star football player, great grades, never ever in trouble, all the girls love you---what do YOU have to worry about? That your hair will start falling out?”

“No, I…” Roman began, then stopped. Now that he was about to say it, it sounded silly.

“You what?” Dean prodded.

“I guess I worry that someday, the tightrope is going to break.”

Chapter Text

“I guess I worry that someday, the tightrope is going to break.”

Dean wasn’t sure exactly what Roman meant by that, but before he could ask, the timer went off. Dinner was done. Although based off the smell alone, Dean had a feeling that dinner was done before it even got started. He filed Roman’s tightrope comment away to ask him about later, when they didn’t have a smelly, hot, gross mess to deal with.

They went into the kitchen and Roman found two oven mitts, and he pulled their concoction out and set it on the counter. It looked horrid.

Dean looked at Roman. Roman looked at Dean. And then they heard the garage door open. Seconds later, their mother walked into the kitchen. Lily looked around and sniffed the air. Then she caught her boys’ eyes. Then she looked down at the pan sitting on the counter, its putrid aroma coming off of it in waves. And then...she began to laugh.

She hadn’t been angry over the destroyed meal. Instead, Lily instructed Dean to throw the chicken in the trash (the outside trash, she repeated more than once), then helped them clean up the kitchen, explaining as they did it what was going on.

“So Seth’s got about 50 stitches total and a mild concussion. I went ahead and came home so I could stop at the pharmacy for his painkillers on the way. He and Daddy shouldn’t be too much longer.”

“Mama? Roman and I---” Dean started, but his mother waved him off.

“I know, sweetie,” Lily hugged him. “I know you didn’t mean for Seth to get hurt. I know that part was an accident. But it still happened and it could have been prevented. You guys have to think before you act. Listen. I hear Dad’s car. I want you guys to order pizza while we get Seth settled and then we’ll talk okay?”

Dean nodded, and so did Roman. That seemed fair.

An hour or so later, Roman, Dean, and their parents sat around the kitchen table. There was an extra-large chicken fajita pizza in the middle. Dean had watched as his parents gently helped Seth to bed, then had gotten several ice packs ready for his brother while Roman poured him some Gatorade into a cup with ice and a straw. Roman had handed all of it off to his father, then answered the door for the pizza delivery man. Dean and Roman explained the whole situation to their parents, and their parents were just finishing telling them about Seth’s ER experience.

“Did he do okay while he was getting stitched?” Dean wondered, remembering how his brother hated being touched by strangers.

“Actually, he was as still as a stone for that part. They gave him shots of lidocaine for the stitches,” his mother mused. “What sucked was, his eyes are basically swollen shut and they had to get his contacts out. So they essentially had to force the swelling open and flush his eyes until they found each contact. He didn’t like that part too much.”

“So...he can’t see?” Roman asked, his face masked in guilt and sadness.

“He can kind of see. Mainly light and shadows. It’s going to be a day or two before the swelling goes down, and then we’ll have to take him to the eye doctor.”

“Oh,” Dean whispered softly. He felt tears spring into his eyes. He knew he’d probably feel guilty for the rest of his life, and he knew he probably deserved it.

“Dean? Sweetheart?” Lily stood and came around the table and engulfed Dean into a hug. “Seth’s fine, baby. He’s going to be okay. Don’t cry.”

“N-no, just...it’s all m-my fault,” Dean whispered into her shoulder.

Roman patted Dean’s back.

“It’s not ALL your fault,” he said kindly.

Dean blinked and looked up at his mother.

“I could only think of one consequence,” he mumbled. “You can send me away. Seth’ll be safer if I’m not here. Probably Rome will too. It’s okay. I understand.”

He felt his mother’s arms tighten.

“And where shall I send you?” Dean immediately got the feeling he wasn’t being taken seriously, which relieved him to no end, so he decided to play along.

“I don’t know. Maybe Siberia,” he turned his head so he could see his father and brother, but he kept his head on his mom’s shoulder.

“It’s cold there,” she told him, beginning to rub soft circles on his back.

“Send me without my jacket. I don’t deserve one,” he was relaxing. His mother didn’t loosen her grip on him, though.

“Take a sweater, at least,” Lily murmured calmly.

“Okay,” he replied.

“Dean?” His mom’s voice was soft.

“Yeah?”

“You’re not going anywhere, baby.”

Dean nodded against Lily.

“Okay.”

“When I mentioned consequences,” his father began, “that didn’t include shipping anyone off to Siberia. Or Transylvania or Kalamazoo or anywhere else.”

“It didn’t?” Dean already figured this.

“Of course not.”

“We love you. Both of you. All three of you. You don’t get kicked out of this family for making mistakes. That’s not a consequence. That’s a prison sentence, and that’s not how this family runs. And Daddy and I can't live without you. Either of you.” Lily continued to caress Dean’s back. Dean saw Roman lean into their dad’s hug.

“Talk to us, guys,” Tony said softly. “You two have been thick as thieves since you met. Here lately, we can all tell that there’s tension between you.”

“It really is my fault,” Dean said quickly. “I was...I’ve been terrible to Rome. I don’t blame him for getting mad at me.”

“It...Dean, we’re not looking to place blame about what happened tonight, okay?” Lily’s voice was gentle but serious. “What we want to understand is how it got here. Is something going on between you?”

“This has been building,” Tony added.

“No…” Roman said slowly. “Dean and I talked earlier and I think…”

Dean interrupted.

“I told him I’m sorry.”

“That was good of you, but we---Mom and I---aren’t so concerned with you apologizing, though we do appreciate that you took the first step towards fixing it. But again, we’re not asking you to place blame. We love you, and we want to help make this better. But in order to do that, we have to understand what’s wrong.”

Well, that was just great. How was Dean supposed to explain what was wrong when he didn’t even completely understand what was wrong himself? Roman looked equally baffled.

“Do you guys feel like we love Seth more than you?” Lily asked them suddenly. Roman and Dean looked at each other, and Dean felt slightly alarmed.

“No! Of course not.” Roman was resolute. Dean hesitated, though.

“Dean? Sweetie?” Lily, who had not yet released Dean from her embrace, tightened her arms around him.

“I know you don’t love him more,” Dean said quietly.

“Okay...I’m glad you know that,” said Tony. “But where is your hesitation coming from, son?”

“Sometimes it feels like you love Seth...and Roman...different.”

Lily looked at him quizzically, and Dean stopped for a second. It had been a vague statement; he knew that, but he just still wasn’t sure how to explain it.

“Well...I guess maybe we do,” Lily replied. “I mean I think we love all three of you different. Definitely not more or less, like you said, but you all have---”

“I HATE being different!” It exploded out of Dean before he could stop it.

“What do you mean, buddy?” Tony murmured. Dean just looked at the floor. Then Roman spoke up.

“Dean and I talked before you guys got home. I think...it sounds to me like he feels kind of lost in the middle sometimes.”

Dean couldn’t meet either of his parents’ eyes so he just nodded; that sounded like a good enough way to put it.

“I understand what you mean, I think,” Lily said softly. “But ‘lost’ isn’t really a feeling. Can you tell me what emotions you feel, sweetness?”

She hadn’t loosened her grip on him even a tiny bit, which Dean was thankful for. He didn’t want to talk about this; deep down he knew his insecurity was silly and he was so ashamed, but he couldn’t lie to his parents, either. Dean was imperfect; he knew that. And his parents knew it, and they didn’t care. But lying was something he just wasn’t going to do, and he knew they expected his honesty. Still, he couldn’t look them in the eye so instead he spoke to his hands.

“I guess...Roman gets to do everything first because he’s the oldest. He got to go with Dad to California, he’s learning to drive, he’s a good student, everyone loves him, and he’s handsome and nice and perfect. And Seth...like, he’s crazy smart, and he’s been hurt so bad and gotten so much better and he’s the baby, and he’s totally adorable and everyone loves him too. And I...I’m just average. There’s nothing about me that stands out. So Roman was doing all of this really cool stuff, and I got...I guess I felt jealous. And perfect Seth wasn’t jealous at all; everything’s always just okay with him. And I hate myself sometimes for being jealous of either of them anyway because it hasn’t been easy for them either, but I can’t make that feeling go away. So yeah...jealous and angry. And I know I’m supposed to talk about that stuff, but I just...sometimes I just don’t know how.”

Wow. Dean hadn’t even really realized he’d been harboring half the things he said, but once stuff started pouring out of him he couldn’t make it stop. He stared at his lap, his eyes beginning to sting again with shameful tears. And then he felt his mom let go of him. Dammit. Now came the part where his parents got mad at him for being foolish. Dean was sure of that. Instead, he felt his mother lay her hand on his cheek, and then he heard his father’s quiet voice.

“Dean. Look at us, please.”

When had Dad moved next to them? But suddenly there he was. Dean waited for their response. His mother spoke first.

“Dean Benjamin Girardi,” her voice held no anger, only love and concern. Dean also noted with a pang that there were tears in her eyes; double dammit, now his ranting had made his mother cry. Just when he thought he couldn’t hate himself any more, Lily spoke again.

“You are an exceptional child, Dean. There’s absolutely nothing about you that’s average. My God, you have the hardest job on the planet; the middle child. But you do it so well. So what if you’re amazing in ways that are different from your brothers? We don’t WANT you to be just like them, sweetie.”

“You...you don’t?” Dean had to admit, this revelation startled him a little.

“Of course not,” Dad’s brown eyes bore into him, and for a moment, Dean felt like his father could see into his soul. “Roman and Seth are their own people too and you’re all three different in amazing ways. You’re every bit as perfect as they are, buddy.”

Lily nodded.

“First of all, you’re every bit as smart as your brothers. You tend to use your intelligence in a different way, but that doesn’t mean it’s less. You make us laugh like no one else can. You feel your feelings very intensely which I know can be painful sometimes, but you know what? You also take joy in so many things and it makes my heart feel light and happy. No one cares more or loves harder than you do, Dean. You’re brave and daring and fun to be around. I never know what you’re going to do or say next, which, believe me, as your mother, can be terrifying but I don’t regret it for a single second. We don’t regret you, sweetness. Not for one second, not a single part of you.”

“The only person we want you to be is who you are, Dean,” Tony rested his hand on Dean’s other cheek. “And I agree with everything your mother just said, and also you’re the most determined person in the world. Once you set your mind to something, it’s happening. You, son, are incredible. So is Roman, yes. Seth too. But don’t ever forget that you are as well, buddy. There’s no one on the planet that Mama and I would rather have as our middle child than you.”

“Dean, there’s nothing we can do about Roman getting to do some things first, you know? By law, he can learn to drive now. Just like in a few more months, you will too. And you’ll do it before Seth because you’re older. That’s part of life, and you know what? It’s OKAY to feel jealous and angry sometimes,” Lily stroked his cheek absently. “But you can tell Daddy and I how you feel, baby. We are NOT ashamed of you or your feelings, Dean. Never. Never, never ever. We don’t always get to control how we feel anyway. Actions we can control. Feelings aren’t...it’s not like a lightswitch that you can just turn off.”

Tony nodded and Dean was flooded with relief. He sagged against his parents for a few minutes, allowing their quiet voices to soothe him and their gentle touches to calm him. Then he thought of something.

“Rome? What’s the tightrope? What did you mean?”

Chapter Text

Roman groaned. This had been Dean’s breakthrough. He instantly regretted even making that comment. Dean’s memory was like a steel trap, and he didn’t let things go.

“We can talk about that later,” Roman muttered.

“We can talk about it now! You heard Mama; we can talk to them about everything. Right, Mom?” Dad had been right about Dean when he was determined.

“Of course, that’s right,” Lily said calmly. “Are you okay, Roman?”

“I’m okay. I just...could’ve reacted better when Dean was obviously upset. That’s all.”

“But I shoved you first,” Dean said.

“I know. And I shoved you next. And that...I shouldn’t have done that.”

“You made a mistake, Ro,” Lily murmured. “We all make them. And you know what? It’s okay.”

Now it was Roman’s turn to hang his head; he couldn’t believe his mother and father were being so forgiving when his ‘mistake’ had harmed one of his brothers.

“No, it isn’t,” he whispered.

“Why isn’t it?” Tony wondered.

“Because I’m supposed to set a good example.”

“But...Rome...you DO set a good example,” Dean said softly.

“I didn’t tonight.”

“So?”

“So Seth---”

His mother interrupted him, though.

“Roman. Baby. Seth is just fine. He’s going to rest for a few days and heal up and be good as---”

Roman stood up.

“Look, I---I know. I mean, I know that I can talk to you whenever, just...can we do this later? Please? I don’t feel like it right now.”

He didn’t wait for a response before walking out of the kitchen, completely missing Dean’s shocked face and the look that his parents exchanged once his back was turned.

 

_______________________________

 

Lily was pacing the bedroom floor, and it was making Tony antsy. The house was quiet now. They had gotten Seth up, as per doctor’s orders, helped him to the bathroom, offered him water, and tucked him back in bed. Then they’d tucked Dean into his bed as well, happy that he was relaxed and calm by then. But when they’d gotten to Roman’s room, they could feel the tension. Something was definitely bothering their boy. Lily had wanted to sit and talk to him about it, but Tony knew that it would do no good to force Roman.

“Lu. Come to bed,” Tony said calmly, but the look she gave him could’ve froze Death Valley.

“I can’t just come to bed,” she muttered. “Something’s wrong, T.”

“Maybe he just feels guilty, or maybe something else is going on, but either way he’s made it clear that he isn’t ready to talk about it yet. We have to respect his wishes.”

Lily sighed.

“Yeah. I know. It’s just that...he’s not like this, you know? Dean sits on things until he explodes. Roman is usually so much better at handling stuff…”

“I know. But I think he’s just feeling some uncomfortable things or something. I think if something was seriously wrong, he’d come to us. Why don’t you go check on him;
we both know you aren’t going to sleep until you do.”

 

_______________________________

 

Tony was right and Lily knew it, so she traipsed down the hall to Roman’s room. She could immediately tell that he wasn’t asleep, so she tapped at the door jam and then went on in.

“Ro?” Lily whispered.

“Hi,” he murmured back.

“You’re still awake,” Lily gently ran her hand over his hair, not for one second missing the tension in his shoulders. As she trailed her hand softly down his back, Roman quietly answered,

“So are you.”

“True story,” said Lily. “I couldn’t...I know you said you don’t feel like talking, and that’s okay. I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”

Roman turned over to face her, and she could see his eyes were red-rimmed. She sighed and held her arms open, and was relieved when her oldest crawled up into
them and rested his head against her shoulder.

“Oh, Roman,” she murmured. “Ro, Ro, how I love you. You know what this kind of reminds me of?”

Roman shook his head.

“Your first night here. Nearly six years ago now. How I came in to check on you and after I left, you started to cry. You were so scared.”

“Yeah, I---I remember, but how did you know that?”

Lily smiled at him.

“I was sitting right outside your door. I couldn’t go too far, just in case you needed me.”

She began tracing her baby’s spine slowly, up and down, as Roman tightened his grip on her.

“Difference is,” she continued, “back then, you didn’t know then how much I love you. You didn’t know you could trust us yet. You didn’t understand that I’ll always be your safety net. No matter what.”

There was silence for awhile as Roman rested against Lily, allowing her to rub his back softly.

“I’m supposed to be good at everything,” Roman said finally.

“Says who?” Lily replied.

“Says me,” Roman’s voice was a whisper now.

“Why?” Lily asked.

“Because isn’t that what you and Dad want? For me to be a good example for Dean and Seth?”

“Well...yes. We do want that. But I’m confused.” Lily honestly was.

“About what?” Roman asked.

“About what being good at everything has to do with setting a good example for your brothers.”

Roman looked up at her. He didn’t seem to know what to say.

“Ro, do you know what an unrealistic expectation is?”

Roman nodded, then shook his head, then nodded again.

“I guess...sorta…”

“An unrealistic expectation,” Lily began, “is an expectation that cannot possibly be met, usually because the person, for whatever reason, just isn’t capable of meeting the expectation.”

“Okay…” Roman trailed off.

“So for example. Me expecting you and Dean to cook a flawless meal tonight would be an unrealistic expectation, because I’ve never even discussed cooking with either of you, so you haven’t been given the tools you need to succeed at that yet. Make sense?”

Roman nodded.

“Yeah...or like, expecting Dean to suddenly get straight A’s is unrealistic because school just isn’t fun for him so he’s not that invested in it. Is that an example, Mom?” Roman wondered.

Lily laughed.

“That’s an excellent example. So rather than saying that I expect YOU to get perfect grades, because I don’t know if you get what you need to achieve that, I could say that I expect you to give it your best effort. That’s something you have total control of, so it’s reasonable for me to ask you to do that.”

Roman nodded again.

“An unrealistic expectation,” Lily said, “is expecting you, or anyone really, to breeze through life without ever making any mistakes. That’s unrealistic, especially at your age, because you’re very young and you’re still learning a lot of the skills you need to be an adult. So instead of expecting perfection, we expect you to treat people kindly, to ask for help when you need it, to do the very best job that Roman Nicholas Girardi can do at anything you dabble in. THAT, son, is how we want you to set a good example for Dean and Seth. And that’s not even something we WANT to bestow on you; it’s just that in case you haven’t noticed, they worship you. It’s the curse of the oldest. I should have Uncle Tommy talk to you about that sometime.”

Roman was relaxing against her. She could feel it.

“I’m not good at everything either,” Lily went on. “Have you ever wondered why Daddy handles the maintenance on the cars? Or why I tend to avoid going fishing? It’s because I’m clueless about mechanical anything, and I refuse to put a worm on a hook. Or touch a floppy fish for that matter.”

Roman laughed.

“And you know Daddy can’t be trusted with the laundry,” Lily continued. Roman laughed again.

“So whatever it is that you aren’t doing perfectly, it’ll be okay. You either need to decide it’s not important and let it go, or you need to decide you want to do what you need to do to fix it.” Lily kissed Roman’s forehead.

“Mom?” Roman asked softly.

“Yes?”

“What will happen if I fail Ancient History?” His voice sounded small and sad, and suddenly things started to make sense.

“Well...ARE you? Failing Ancient History?”

“I...I don’t know. I got a B- last semester, but...there was a test and I did study. I swear I did, but when I read it today, I just...I knew nothing. It was like I was reading a foreign language. I don’t think I did too well.” Roman murmured against his mother’s neck.

Lily had known about the test, and she knew Roman had studied. She also knew that history of any kind just didn’t interest Roman, and it was a subject he struggled with.

“If it’s as bad as you think, will your teacher let you retake it?”

“I...I don’t know. Maybe. And it’s early in the semester. I just...it’s not going to get any easier, Mom.” Roman sighed.

“No. No, it probably won’t. How did you study?” Lily asked him.

“There was a study guide. I read it over and over but then I took the test…I’ve only gotten C’s on the assignments…”

“Okay. Listen, Roman, one bad grade...I mean you’re correct that you need to keep your grade up if you want to continue to play ball, but if you don’t do well, it’s not going to make you a horrible example for your brothers and it’s certainly not going to make Daddy and I love you less…”

“I know. I mean I know you won’t hate me or anything,” Roman sighed again.

“Roman. Seriously?” Lily poked his side, eliciting a soft choked giggle from her son. Although Roman wasn’t nearly as ticklish as Dean, he had a couple of sweet spots.

“Okay, okay, okay. I know you’ll still love me, no matter what. But I still don’t want to flunk the class. I wish I’d taken a different history credit.”

“I know you do, but you made the choice and we can’t change that now, so instead of wishing we could, why don’t we figure out how we can make this better?” Lily rubbed Roman’s arm. “Like, what if next time you and I study together?”

“That’d be okay,” Roman murmured.

“Or...you know, you help Seth and Dean study all the time. I’m sure they’d be happy to return the favor. This is a very fixable problem, kiddo.”

“Yeah,” Roman’s voice was sleepy now. Lily placed another kiss on his forehead.

“And now I want you to go to sleep. Everything is going to be fine, Ro…” Lily felt Roman’s body relax against her and she sighed. She thought about poor Roman, stressed over something like this but for all the wrong reasons. And Dean thinking he was supposed to be exactly like his brothers. She knew that she and Tony had addressed their fears and that they would be okay. But she couldn’t help but think that for everything that the two of them did right, they still had a lot to learn about being parents.

Chapter Text

Seth was fully aware that he could’ve been a total butt about the whole situation and nobody would’ve batted an eye. He could’ve asked Dean and Roman for absolutely anything, and they’d have made it happen. He didn’t though.

For the first few days that was because he was just too miserable and wallowing in his own self pity to even enjoy sticking it to his brothers. The first night they kept waking him up, which pissed him off because all he wanted to do was sleep. Being awake hurt. In the nights that followed, waking up unable to see freaked him out. He’d wake up, usually from pain, and realize he was blind, but not easily remember why. Seth hadn’t had a nightmare in months, but the fear that welled up inside him then was overpowering and he’d cry out for his parents.

At first either his mother or father would show up. But after a couple of nights, Dean came in on his own.

Seth smelled him before he saw him. Axe body wash. He knew it was Dean. Since he couldn’t see, his other senses heightened.

“D-Dean?” He whispered.

“Yeah. I’m here. You okay?”

“I c-can’t s-see,” Seth let out a moan.

“I know. Your eyelids are swollen. Remember?” Seth did remember, and he relaxed against his bed. He could feel his brother stretch out beside him.

“See? You’re okay. Need anything?” Dean asked him softly.

“I’m...a little thirsty,” Seth replied.

“Water? Gatorade? Hot chocolate?”

“You’d...make me hot chocolate?” Seth wondered.

“Sure. With little marshmallows?” Dean wanted to know.

“Yeah. Yeah, thanks.”

Dean returned with Seth’s hot chocolate and helped him sip it. Seth appreciated it, but he was having trouble relaxing. Dean seemed to be able to sense this.

“What’s wrong, little bro?”

Seth shivered a little.

“I don’t...nothing really. I just...I’m thankful that this vision thing is only temporary ‘cuz it’s creepy.”

“Bet that’s true,” Dean patted his shoulder. “I’ll stay with you ‘til you fall asleep again okay?”

Seth nodded gratefully. Then he felt his brother pull the blankets up around him. He tried to relax, but tremors kept occasionally running through his body. He felt Dean get up and heard him move around, then felt him return to the bed. Then he heard rustling, and then...Dean began to read.

It took Seth a moment to realize that was what was happening when he first heard Dean’s voice, but then he really listened to the words.

“Becoming fearless isn’t the point. That’s impossible. It’s learning how to control your fear, and how to be free from it.”

Dean had picked up Seth’s copy of Divergent and begun reading to him. Dean was actually reading to Seth. DEAN. Dean, who would sit and listen if the story was intriguing enough but who never cracked a book unless it was required by a teacher. Dean, who now was here, doing the thing that was almost always guaranteed to help Seth relax. He felt tears begin to sting his eyes, and he was relieved that they were swollen enough that his brother wouldn’t be able to see them.

Seth laid in bed and listened to Dean’s voice for what had to be close to an hour, and then he heard his brother close the book.

“Hey...Seth?”

“Yeah?”

“You know Rome and I would never hurt you on purpose right?”

“Dean...of course I know that. We’re brothers. We make mistakes and we learn together.” Seth leaned back against his pillows. He meant every word he said. The next morning when their father came in to wake Dean for school, he asked Seth about the dirty mug on his nightstand, and when Seth told him about the hot chocolate, he’d smiled softly.

“You really do have good brothers, bub,” he’d murmured as he helped Seth to the bathroom, and Seth really couldn’t disagree.

Within a few days, the swelling went down enough that Seth could see with the help of his glasses. His visit to the eye doctor was painful, but he and his parents were thrilled to learn that there was no major damage to his eyes. Dr. Hiett told him that it would probably be about two months before he could comfortably wear his contacts again, but that didn’t matter. His glasses were comfortable and he was fine with wearing them.

He was still in his glasses when Spring Break rolled around, and with that came another camping trip. This time, however, several things were different. For one, this time their mother decided to come along. She proclaimed she hadn’t been fishing in years, and she thought it’d be fun to rough it with her guys. Turned out, it wasn’t going to be all that rough at all, because as promised, their father rented a camper. It wasn’t the hugest thing ever, but it easily slept the five of them with a queen size bed, a sofa with a pullout, and bunk beds. There was also a kitchenette with a microwave, sink, small oven, and stove, a bathroom with a toilet and a shower, and a TV. The TV wouldn’t work without a satellite signal, but it DID have a DVD player. This, Seth thought, was his kind of camping.

The best part, though, was that when they arrived at the campsite, they were in for a surprise---the three Miller boys, Simon, Patrick, and Noah, and their parents were there as well. Tony and the boys’ foster father had talked and agreed that the two families needed a get together since the boys had gotten on so well at camp. They’d spent time together throughout the past nine months. They’d come to watch Roman play football, and the Girardi’s had gone to watch Simon as well. Seth and Noah hung out several weekends playing video games and studying. Dean and Patrick discovered they both loved Motocross, so there was that as well. It was only natural to go on a camping trip together.

The first day they went on a long family hike, complete with a picnic by a creek, and then the boys went wading. It was cold, but still so much fun. They laughed and splashed and roughhoused in the water before returning to shore and wrapping themselves up in the towels their mothers had prepared for them. Then they hiked back to the campsite, ate a snack of fresh fruit, and then helped their fathers build a campfire. The only thing they intended to cook on it was marshmallows and perhaps hot dogs, but Tony insisted they needed a fire anyway. It worked considerably better with the kitchenette in the camper; Tony grilled some steaks while Lily made baked beans in the oven and steamed broccoli in the microwave. Meanwhile, next door, Mike was grilling chicken and salmon, and Lindsey was in their own camper fixing green beans and a Jello salad. They did use the fire, but it was for something considerably more interesting than a s’more.

Lily gave them each an ice cream cone, and then showed them how she stuffed them with mini marshmallows, chocolate chips, chopped bananas, and chopped strawberries. Then she wrapped them in tin foil and threw them in the fire. Tony used the grill tongs to pull them out 5 minutes later and once they were cool enough to open, everything was all melted together in a delicious concoction.

“Thanks Mom!” Roman, Dean, and Seth all squealed with delight.

“Thank you, Dr. G!” Simon, Patrick, and Noah concurred.

“Thank Pinterest,” Lily replied.

The next day their father surprised them with a rented boat. Not a rowboat or a speedboat either. This one had an actual cabin, with a downstairs kitchen. Since there was no one else out on the lake at the early hour they left, Tony let Roman drive for a few minutes.

“It’s not that different from driving a car,” he said, “and you’re getting pretty good at that.” Roman blushed.

They spent the entire day on the lake, fishing off the boat. Their mother had packed a delicious lunch of cold fried chicken, potato salad, macaroni salad, chips, deviled eggs, fruit, cookies, and fresh-squeezed lemonade. They pulled out the spread around noon and stuffed themselves silly.

It warmed up quite a bit out in the sun, so in a moment of bravery, the boys jumped into the lake a couple of hours after lunch. They splashed each other, wrestled in the water, and floated while their parents looked on fondly. At about 4:30, they headed back to camp. None of them especially WANTED the fun to end, but they were all exhausted so they didn’t put up much of a fuss and plus, they had another night of fun planned with their friends, so they were excited for that.

 

_________________________

 

That night it was Lily who noticed it first---Dean had a terrible sunburn.

“Didn’t you put on sunscreen?” Tony asked him.

“Well, yeah...first thing this morning,” Dean muttered sheepishly.

Tony looked his son over. He was red as a beet from his head to his toes. Literally everything that wasn’t covered by hair or swim trunks looked like Dean had been doused in red paint. Tony looked at his wife.

“I don’t guess we happened to bring any frozen towels?” Frozen towels were the sunburn cure they used at the beach. The day they arrived, Lily always got several towels wet and then put them in the deep freeze in the garage. Then whenever someone needed it, she’d wrap the sunburned child up in one. It soothed their skin while pulling the burn out. However, that was at the beach house. In the summer.

“No, I uh...I mean it’s barely 80 degrees and we don’t have space in the camper...Dean, go take a cold shower, okay? Cold as you can stand it. I’ll look through the first aid supplies.”

She returned a few moments later with four tea bags, which she handed to Tony.

“Will you brew these please?”

“You’re drinking tea now?” Tony looked at her in surprise.

“No, silly, they’re for Dean.”

“Lu...it’s a nice idea but Dean doesn’t even LIKE tea…” Tony again tried to break it to Lily that this idea wasn’t going to work.

“I know that,” Lily said calmly. “He’s not going to drink it. Once it cools off we’re going to rub it on his skin. Something about black tea is supposed to neutralize the pH and help soothe sunburn.”

“Ahhhh...you know, you’re kind of a genius,” Tony was legit impressed.

“Well then, when you hear this you’re really gonna want to call MENSA. Once we’ve done that, we’re going to cover the child in coconut oil.”

“Coconut oil?”

“It’s super moisturizing. Once the tea does its job, the coconut oil will help long term. Got a t-shirt you don’t mind staining?”

Tony grabbed an old t-shirt while the tea was steeping, and Lily found a blanket. When Dean came out of the shower clad only in a pair of boxers, Lily sat him down and rubbed the cooled off tea all over him, then wrapped him in the blanket. An hour or so later, they took him outside and slathered him up with coconut oil, then wrapped him back in the blanket. He was greasy from top to bottom, but he was obviously feeling a little better.

That night, another feast was prepared. Mike and Lindsey had brought along pizza stones, so they cooked pizzas on the grills. Tony was intrigued; he considered himself something of a master griller, but he’d never tried pizza. They made four---one extra pepperoni, one vegetarian, one all meat, and one with pineapple.

“What?” Dean asked innocently when everyone else groaned.

 

_____________________________

 

A few weeks after Spring Break ended, the three boys got to experience something they’d never done before---they went to a wedding.

A week prior, their mother pulled out their dressy clothes and made them try them on. Then she and Dean both groaned when they realized they had all outgrown their nice slacks. And they groaned for the same reason---this meant shopping.

Typically, Lily loved to go shopping. She loved shopping with Roman and with Seth, and she even loved shopping with all three of them, but shopping with Dean was a chore when they were looking for clothes.

Dean knew this, but he didn’t care. He despised clothes shopping. He hated searching through racks. He abhorred trying things on. Dean was between pants sizes. He wasn’t quite tall enough for the long pants that fit Roman perfectly, but he was too tall to comfortably wear the regular pants that worked well for Seth. So his options were basically to walk around in pants that that his mother hemmed (embarrassing) or pants that came above his ankles and wracked his crotch with every step (ouch).

Dean’s solution for shopping misery basically involved doing anything and everything he could to humiliate his mother. He sang loudly and off-key. He barked at salespeople. His antics tended to make Roman and Seth crack up, which, to their mother’s chagrin, generally just spurred him on. In a word, he and Lily both just dreaded it.

It had to be done, though. A wedding, Lily explained, at least the kind they were going to, required them to dress nicely, and besides, it was for Cici.

Cici was a nurse at his mother’s practice. Dean adored her. All three boys did. Cici, short for Cecilia, was kind and smart. Any time one of them was at their mother’s office, she always made sure she had time to come by and say hello, and every so often, she’d bring them a can of pop or a new book, and she knew lots of card tricks. Dean, Cici claimed, was the only person on earth she would tell the secret of the tricks to, so that he could perform them himself. So for Cici, Dean would do it. He’d go shopping and get some new pants.

It also didn’t hurt that his mother bribed him with a trip to the Cheesecake Factory.

On the Saturday morning before the wedding, Lily and Dean piled into the Highlander. Roman and Seth stayed home with Tony and began the arduous task of cleaning out the pool so it could be filled soon for the summer. Dean began to feel like he might have gotten off easy. Then he and his mom drove past the mall. What? He’d expected to be carted around to Macy’s, Dillard’s, or perhaps Neiman Marcus. Instead he was startled to find they’d parked in front of Men’s Warehouse.

“What are we doing here?” Dean wondered.

“Well, you’re 15 now,” Lily replied. “I think that if you are becoming a man, we can probably shop at a store for them, right? Besides, I suspect that they might have a better selection of sizes.”

Dean’s curiosity was piqued. They walked into the store together and were immediately approached by a very sharply dressed man whose nametag read Corey. He and Lily seemed to know each other, though they didn’t address that. Corey smiled at Dean.

“Hello,” he said. “How can I help you today?”

“Ummm…” Dean wasn’t terribly accustomed to being addressed directly like this. He looked at his mom, who nodded encouragingly. He decided he might as well live it up.

“Hello, my good man,” Dean said, and he didn’t miss Lily’s eyes roll. “I have been invited to a fancy to-do, a wedding, you see, so I must have some pants.”

Corey didn’t laugh. He looked very serious as he looked Dean over. Dean continued.

“As it goes, I appear to have grown since the last time I needed dress pants.”

Corey nodded at him solemnly and motioned for them to follow him.

“Hello, my good man?” Lily muttered at Dean under her breath, to which Dean replied,

“At least I didn’t bark.”

“Let’s check your size,” Corey said when they arrived at his station. Dean was quite surprised when, rather than simply ask his sizes, the man pulled out a tape measure. He measured Dean’s legs and his waist, writing things down on a clipboard as he went. Finally, he stopped and looked everything over.

“And what color dress pants are you interested in, sir?” Corey asked Dean. Sir? Seriously. Dean was kind of impressed.

“Umm,” he began, considering asking for powder blue, but Lily must have seen the wheels turning, because she quickly answered,

“Black.”

Corey looked at Dean for confirmation. Okay, now he was officially impressed. He simply nodded in agreement.

While Corey went off to check on what was available, Dean turned to his mother.

“Did you set this up?” He accused.

“Cross my heart, I had nothing to do with this. He’s actually mistaken you for a gentleman.” Dean snorted at his mother’s answer. She grinned at him.

“Love you,” she mouthed.

Corey returned with several pairs of pants. They were on strange hangers that clipped at the ends rather than folding down the middle.

“Here you are, sir,” he said. “Why don’t you step in the dressing room, and try this first pair on.”

Dean did as instructed, rather giddy over being called ‘sir’ again.

The pants, he thought, fit pretty well. They were maybe just a tiny bit too long, but they didn’t cover his toes, which was a definite improvement. He stepped out of the dressing room and was dismayed and slightly insulted when his mother began to laugh.

“What?” Dean demanded. “They’re exactly the right length.”

“I know. But they’re way baggy in the booty,” his mother continued to giggle, and when Dean turned around and caught sight of his rear end in the mirror, he couldn’t help but join her.

“Okay, okay. I’ll try another.”

The next pair was longer than too short, but not quite long enough.

“Let’s set these aside,” Corey suggested, “ and if we have to, we can lengthen them. I think a half inch would do it.” Lily nodded her agreement. Dean went back in.

The third pair was way too long but fit perfectly in the waist and butt. Again, they put those aside, just in case, but when Dean tried on the fourth pair, he knew they were perfect. He stepped out of the dressing room, where his mother just grinned.

“Turn around, sweetie,” she said softly. Dean did as instructed.

“They fit, Mom!” It seemed a little dumb to be so excited, but Dean was thrilled at the concept of not having to have anything altered.

“I agree; I think we have a winner,” Lily replied.

Corey addressed Dean.

“Shall I wrap these up, sir?” Dean nodded happily, then nudged his mother.

“You shall,” he said. “But---she’s paying.”

After Lily handed Corey her credit card and they left the store, they sat together at the Cheesecake Factory. They’d split an appetizer of fried macaroni and cheese, before Lily had a barbecue chicken salad and Dean gorged himself on a meal of chicken, asparagus, and mashed potatoes. He felt a strange sort of calm that contradicted the normal feelings that swirled in his head. It felt heady, being treated by a grown up by a salesman at a store for adults, and he always loved quiet time just him and Mom, even if it HAD been spent shopping.

Chapter Text

The wedding was gorgeous and brought back tons of memories for Lily and Tony, but Lily kind of thought the best part was how incredibly handsome her three boys looked. Beforehand, she made them stand in front of the fireplace with Seth in the middle and let her take a picture. They got numerous compliments at the reception, but the best one came from the bride’s new mother-in-law. The woman approached Lily and Tony right after Cici and her new husband left the reception hall.

“I just want to tell you,” she began, “that your three sons are perhaps the most polite, well-mannered young men I have met recently.”

Lily exchanged glances with Tony.

“OUR boys? Those three over there?” Tony pointed to a table, where Roman, Dean, and Seth were seated enjoying seconds on cake.

“Those very three,” Mrs. Baldwin continued to gush. “I’ve heard them say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, refer to my son and daughter-in-law as ‘sir and ma’am’, and your middle son, the one who looks so much like you, Doctor, even held the door for me when I returned from the restroom. Your young men give me hope for the future. You should be very proud.”

Lily and Tony grinned.

“We are,” Lily said. “We definitely are.”

The fact that the boys were adopted was no secret. They did seem to resemble their parents in different ways, though. Seth’s thick dark hair and wide chocolate eyes definitely favored Tony, though the curls were all his own. They now fell to just past his shoulder; his hair wasn’t as long as Roman’s, but if Seth pulled it back in a ponytail and stood next to his father, a stranger wouldn’t think twice about their relationship. Meanwhile, Dean was practically the spitting image of Lily---honey-colored hair, clear blue eyes, a mischievous smile. His dimple matched Tony’s too. Then there was beautiful Roman. His long dark hair and olive skin went right along with Tony’s Italian heritage, but his eyes---different shades of grey and blue depending on his mood---favored Lily. She could’ve given birth to all three of them and no one would be the wiser. Neither Lily nor Tony cared whatsoever about whether or not their children looked like them, but Lily did get a small sense of satisfaction whenever a total stranger told her that her children looked just like her.

 

_____________________________________

 

Unfortunately, a month after the wedding, the boys had another brand new experience---a funeral.

One Tuesday, only about two weeks before school was out for the summer, each of them got notified that they were to meet their mother in the car rider lane instead of getting on the community center bus. All of them figured that was odd, but none of them was alarmed. Occasionally, their mother failed to mention that someone had an appointment, and every once in awhile, even though it was Tuesday, she finished with surgeries early and was able to pick them up.

When they got into the Highlander, Roman thought his mom looked a little tense, but she didn’t volunteer any information, and he was too focused on his English paper and his upcoming ancient history final to give it too much thought. He didn’t even look up from his history text, actually, until he heard Seth pipe up from the back seat,

“Hey---why is Dad home early too?”

It was then that Roman noticed that the Escalade was indeed parked in the open garage, and the dogs were out. He looked up at his mother. BOTH parents home early unexpectedly? Something had to be up. This had only happened once before, when their father had surprised them with tickets to see the Rockets play the Spurs downtown. But that didn’t explain the look on their mother’s face. She didn’t look happy now. Not happy at all.

As they piled out of the Highlander, their dad met them at the garage door. His eyes looked funny. Then his words chilled Roman. As he hugged them all, he said softly,

“Let’s go sit in the living room, guys. We need to talk.”

That phrase rarely meant anything positive. Soon enough, they were sitting together in their usual family meeting spots. Lily sat on the couch with an arm around Seth and an arm around Dean. Tony sat on the coffee table, and Roman sat in the recliner near them, absently scratching Honey Badger’s ears.

“Guys…” Lily began. She looked at Tony, but he didn’t meet her gaze. Then Roman was even more alarmed to realize that his father had tears in his eyes.

“Boys…” Tony said, his voice quieter than Roman ever remembered it, “Papa Angelo died this morning.”

Roman felt like he’d been punched in the stomach. The room was completely silent for a few moments. Then Seth whispered,

“How?”

“He was like 90, you idiot. How do you think?” Dean snapped.

Lily turned to Dean and tried to murmur soft words into his ear, but he jumped up and stormed out of the room. A moment later they all heard his door slam. Seth burst into tears then, and a few tears rolled down their dad’s cheek as well. Roman felt like he couldn’t breathe. His mother looked up at him. Then she gently untangled herself from Seth and guided him into their father’s embrace. Their shoulders shook as they cried together. Roman had seen his mother cry more than once, but never his father. Not ever, not even once. Now he really couldn’t breathe, but his mother stood, perched herself on the arm of his chair, and pulled him close.

“It’s okay. You can cry, kiddo. You can cry, Ro.” And suddenly, he felt himself gasp in a breath, and then tears he didn’t even know had been welling up in his eyes began to fall. His mom pulled him tighter against her as he pressed his face into her shoulder and allowed himself to hurt.

“I know,” he heard Lily whisper softly. “I know, baby. I know.”

Lily began to rub Roman’s back as he hiccuped and tried to control himself, but his chest ached. He’d never experienced the death of someone he’d truly loved before; he’d never known any of his biological grandparents or other family members, and this was the first death to hit his adoptive family. In theory, he knew his grandparents were aging; all four of them were over 70. But he just hadn’t ever considered that they would each one day die. As would, some day, his parents. Oh, God. That thought made him cry harder. He stopped fighting it.

The four of them sat there for a long time, Tony holding on to Seth, Roman snug in Lily’s arms. Roman felt his neck grow wet and he knew his mother was crying too. Right at that moment, he didn’t care. He didn’t want her to ever let him go again. Eventually, though, she gently guided him into his father’s unoccupied arm, as she murmured,

“I’m gonna go check on Dean, okay?”

Roman nodded, but then to perhaps all of their surprise, Seth stood up.

“I’ll come with you,” he said.

 

__________________________________

 

Seth had no idea why he felt compelled to go make sure his brother was okay after Dean had been nasty to him, or why his presence might make him feel better, but for whatever reason, he did. He pressed his hand into his mother’s as they walked side by side down the hall. Lily tapped on Dean’s door, then opened it softly when she got no response.

She quietly opened the door. Dean was sitting cross-legged on his bed, holding a framed photo on his lap. Seth knew without looking that it was the one of Dean and Papa. Papa Angelo loved all three of the boys; that much was clear. But he had the strongest bond with Dean. They didn’t actually see much of each other, but they talked on the phone usually once a week or so, and since neither of them was very tech-savvy, they would occasionally exchange hand-written letters.

Seth and Lily sat down on Dean’s bed. Lily offered her arms for a hug, but Dean just shook his head softly.

“I just talked to him,” he whispered. “I just talked to him on Saturday. He sounded fine, Mom. He sounded...he sounded normal.”

“Oh, sweetie,” Lily murmured.

“No, Mom, just...there’s nothing you can say. Alright? There’s just...there’s nothing to say.” Dean’s voice was still a whisper.

None of them spoke for a few minutes, and Seth took that opportunity to size his brother up. To Seth, Dean had always been the wild, crazy, fun-loving brother. Roman was the pillar of strength, safe and protective. But he simply adored them both, for different reasons, and it was hard to see Dean like this. Small. Sad. Pain seemed to radiate off of him in waves, and the hardest part was, he was right. There were no words, no actions, nothing that could ease his brother’s hurt. He remembered back to when he had first arrived at his house, though, to how it had taken him awhile, but eventually Seth had come to understand that while Dean’s style of caring was very different, it wasn’t less. So while he knew it probably wouldn’t help, Seth had to try.

He slowly reached for Dean’s hand. Dean slowly took it. Without letting go, Seth crawled closer until he was scrunched up against Dean’s legs. No eye contact was made, but Seth felt his big brother drape his arm across his shoulders. Then he felt Dean give his hand a squeeze.

“You know,” came their mother’s voice, “what my favorite memory of Angelo will always be?”

“What?” Seth whispered.

“When Daddy and I got married, Papa asked me to dance. So we did, and the whole time---”

“What was the song?” Dean interrupted.

“Hmm?”

“When you danced with Papa, what was the song?”

A soft smile played on Lily’s lips.

“Where’s your iPad?”

Dean pointed to his mess of a desk, neither of the boys too willing to move. Seth didn’t have a clue whether Dean was feeling any better, but laying in his brother’s soft embrace was definitely helping him.

Their mama crawled back up on the bed and nestled close to them, tapping at Dean’s iPad until she found YouTube and then typing something in.

“The title of the song was Unforgettable. I had just danced with my own father to In My Life, and I’d asked the band to play it twice so I could dance with my Daddy just a little longer.” She began playing the song.

Unforgettable
In every way,
And forever more
That's how you'll stay.

That's why, darling, it's incredible
That someone so unforgettable
Thinks that I am
Unforgettable, too.

The song was soft and slow, and Seth closed his eyes, and he could easily envision his mom and his Papa, 20 years younger, dancing together. Then Lily continued.

“The whole time, Papa Angelo was whispering in my ear. He told me that he loved me for making his son the happiest man on earth, and that I was always going to be his best girl. He told me...that I was a blessing,” Lily’s eyes brimmed with tears as she reached for Dean.

“It’s okay to hurt, sweetie. It’s gonna hurt,” their mother whispered fiercely as she engulfed Dean and Seth in a tight hug. “You just gotta know that you’re not alone. I’m going to miss him too.”

It took a second for Seth to realize that he was crying again, but then he also realized that Dean’s shoulders were shuddering. Deep sobs racked his body, and for a few minutes, the sound of him gulping and gasping was all they could here. Then Dean raised his head and looked up at Lily with the saddest face Seth had ever seen.

“I’m just so FUCKING PISSED at him,” he finally whispered. “I just talked to him, Mommy. I just talked to him and he sounded fine and...and I didn’t get to say goodbye.” Again, Dean buried his face into their mother and let himself sob, and Seth crawled up closer and laid his head on Dean’s back.

“Why does it hurt so bad, Mama?” Dean moaned. “Why does this hurt so much more than anything else ever has hurt in my whole entire life?”

“Because losing someone you love is just harder than dealing with pain caused by someone you don’t,” their mother murmured. “And I wish I could tell you that it goes away. It’s going to get easier, I promise you that. Eventually you’ll realize that a couple of days have gone by since you felt that stabbing pain in your heart, and you’ll be startled. You will always love him, Dean. You’re always going to miss him. He’s a part of you. But sweetie, someday, many many years from now, I pray, it’s going to be your turn and you’ll see him again. We all will be together again. In the meantime, it’s up to you to live the life you’ve been given in a way that you know will make him proud, ‘cuz he’s always going to be with you, with every beat of your heart. You get to carry that with you. That’s something that no one can take away.”

Seth felt Dean still slowly, felt him take a few shuddering breaths before he sagged against them like a sail when the wind died down. Again, no one spoke for a long time as they stayed there, the three of them snuggled together, Lily softly rubbing their backs.

“Mommy?” Dean finally mumbled.

“Yes, my love?”

“I love you.”

“I love you too. I love you both. We’re going to get through this together, guys. I promise you that. We’re a family. We love together and we’ll hurt together. Nobody’s gonna deal with this alone. Dean?”

“Hmm…?”

“Go hug your dad.”

Dean offered Lily a small smile before silently getting up and leaving his bedroom. Seth felt his mother’s arms tighten around him.

“How about you, bub? You doing okay?”

“Mommy? But...you’re never going to die, right?”

He felt her sigh softly across his neck.

“Not today, Seth. Not tomorrow, and not for a very long time.”

Seth knew he’d have to be content with that answer, but for now, he was. He didn’t make a move to get up for quite awhile though, and Lily didn’t loosen her arms around him for a long, long time.

That night, the boys hugged Tony hard and tight before he left for New York. The plan was for Lily to fly out with them on Thursday evening after school. The wake for Papa Angelo was on Friday evening, the funeral Saturday morning, and on Sunday, they fully intended to just hang out together and take a break before flying home Monday. The boys would miss just two days of school, but it was so close to the end of the year that they’d all have to scramble to catch up. Luckily Lily was able to contact the school and explain the situation, and they were given extensions on their year-end projects. Seth fully intended to do homework on the flight, though. If only it had gone that way.

They arrived at the airport two hours early, a necessity flying out of Houston. The past two days had been stressful. Roman was stressed about finals. Dean’s anxiety had taken a massive hit, and Seth, who hadn’t had nightmares in ages, had awakened screaming two nights in a row. Nevermind that they were all just sad. No one spoke much as they waited together for the plane. Seth knew he should pull out his geometry book, but he really didn’t feel like it just yet.

He played on his iPad instead and listened to some songs, until he heard Dean exclaim incredulously,

“We’re flying to New York in THAT?”

Seth looked up and there out the window sat the smallest plane he had ever seen.

It definitely didn’t qualify as a jet, though it was hardly a twin engine. It was so small though, and the flight was four hours. Seth looked at his mother, concerned.

“It’s going to be fine, guys,” Lily soothed.

“I am NOT getting on that,” Dean insisted.

“I’m sorry, sweetie. We didn’t have a lot of options on short notice. We’re together; it’ll be just fine. Honest.”

Dean grumbled until it was time to board.

It was the first time they’d ever flown without Tony, and the second Seth got on, he realized a problem. This plane only had three seats across, two on one side of the
aisle and one on the other. That meant three window seats and only one aisle---and neither he nor Dean was keen to sit by the window.

“I get the aisle,” Dean said immediately, and Seth all but yelled,

“No way!”

“Guys,” Lily started. People were lining up behind them and Seth felt bad for stressing his mother out, but he really really didn’t want to sit by the window. He pleaded Lily with his eyes.

“Listen---bub,” she began. He knew what that meant. He’d lost this fight before he’d even gotten to make an argument.

“Seth...baby,” his mother continued. “Will you please just try this for me? Please? You’ll probably sleep, right? And Dean probably won’t.”

She had a point, he conceded. Homework or not, Seth almost always wound up falling asleep on flights, although he also was typically sandwiched safely between both of his parents. With a defeated sigh, he nodded.

“Okay, Mama.”

“Thank you, bub.”

Seth just nodded again.

Somewhere over Arkansas (maybe?) they flew through right above a storm. The little plane did not seem to appreciate this, and it began to shudder. Seth began to shudder too; he was alone in his window seat (because that was better than sitting that close to Dean right now, even if it meant being farther away from his mom). He’d been dozing a little when the plane shook, but his eyes popped open with the first jolt.

“Seth---it’s okay, bub. Just a little turbulence,” Lily had noticed him wake up. Seth felt Roman reach up from behind him to grip his elbow. Seth sighed and started to relax---then the plane made a sharp drop. Several passengers screamed and the captain came over the loudspeaker, announcing the turbulence (you think? Hadn’t noticed) and requesting all the passengers remain in their seats with their seatbelts fastened. Right, like Seth was going anywhere.

The storm tossed the small plane around for what felt like a year but really couldn’t have been more than 15 minutes, and Seth grew more panicky with each bump. Eventually he just covered his face with his hands. Roman’s hand remained firm on his arm, and then he felt a soft hand grab his---it was…

“Mama!” Seth cried out. Suddenly she was next to him across the aisle, her arm around Dean as she squeezed Seth’s hand.

“I’m right here,” Lily was so calm, maybe almost too calm, but Seth didn’t care just then. He clung to her hand for dear life.

“Just hang on, guys,” Mama addressed all three boys. “This won’t last forever. You’re all doing great. Just hang on.”

Seth tried to listen, tried to keep calm, but the only thing that kept running through his head was the irony that he was going to die---on the way to a funeral.

Eventually the storm passed. Lily held on to Seth’s hand, though, until they landed safely in New York.

Chapter Text

They ended up staying at a hotel, since Nonna and Papa’s house was overflowing. Tony was the youngest child of 13; a classic Italian Catholic family. Their father had two older sisters and ten older brothers which is how, Roman figured, he’d gotten to be so good and understanding about boys.

Tony’s oldest brother was Angelo, Jr., and at 70 he was 21 years older than Tony. He had grandchildren older than Roman, Dean, and Seth, which left him with little in common with his own youngest brother, but he was a really nice man. The 13 Girardi children had a total of 46 of their own children, which meant 46 grandchildren for Papa and Nonna, and they were up to 18 great-grandchildren. It made for a massive family gathering, which could be stressful anyway without all of the grief, and it was enough of a struggle for Dean to be in Papa’s house right then anyway. So a hotel was quite welcome, especially since it was late when they arrived in New York.

They went out to the house in Brooklyn Friday morning. Roman didn’t exactly know what was appropriate behavior in this particular situation. People were everywhere and there were a lot of voices, but it wasn’t the fun, cheerful atmosphere that found them at Thanksgiving or Christmas. In every room, at least one person was crying. Roman had a feeling neither of his brothers was going to last very long, and he was right.

It might not have been so bad, but seeing the pain on his father’s face hurt his heart, and he wanted to do something, but he had no idea what. He watched his mom, always a pillar of strength, offer love and comfort to Nonna, help out in the kitchen, keep some of the smallest great-grandchildren out of trouble, and hug on a desolate cousin, all while Seth acted as her shadow and stayed by her side, and while keeping her eye on Dean, who was sulking in a quiet room. They’d been there an hour before it occurred to Roman that it had been awhile since he’d seen his father.

“Mama?” Roman tried to approach his mother, who right that minute was helping his cousin Serena fix her hair.

“Hmm?” Lily had a mouth full of bobby pins and couldn’t speak, but their eyes met and Roman knew he had her full attention.

“Have you seen Dad?”

Lily paused, then shook her head.

“He went outside. I saw him,” Seth piped up from behind Lily. Roman looked him over. He looked stricken. Roman reached out his hand.

“Wanna come out and find him with me?”

Seth nodded quickly and latched himself onto Roman’s hand. Roman nodded as Lily mouthed “thank you” and then he guided Seth to the back yard.

It was tiny, not unusual for a house in Brooklyn, but it had a pretty big tree in it, and there was a treehouse up in its branches. Roman looked around. He didn’t see his father, but he also didn’t hear any voices, so he figured that maybe some quiet time up in the tree might help Seth.

“C’mon. Let’s go up,” Roman said softly, and Seth nodded.

Roman intended to sit up there and talk to his baby brother for awhile, but as he got to the treehouse, he realized their dad was sitting in it. He wasn’t crying or doing anything else, really; he was just sitting cross-legged in the middle of it. When Tony saw his boys, he held up both arms. Seth gratefully crawled straight into them, and Roman crouched down next to them both and accepted a hug as well.

“Sorry guys. I know I bailed on you and your mom. I just...I just needed…” Tony didn’t finish his sentence. Instead he gazed down at Seth and Roman in his arms.

Roman wasn’t sure what was the right thing to say, so rather than speak, he laid his head down on his dad’s shoulder and just nodded.

“Dammit, boys,” Tony whispered. “This just...makes me want to squeeze your guts out.”

Seth giggled softly.

“Daddy? I’m sorry you’re sad,” He whispered.

“Thank you, bub. Don’t be sorry though, okay? Sadness isn’t anything to apologize for. Yours OR mine,” Tony said quietly into Seth’s hair.

“I remember the first time I met Papa,” Roman whispered. “I was so scared ‘cuz I just...I just didn’t know what I was supposed to DO.”

Tony smiled.

“I remember you then. A newly minted 10 year old. You were trying so hard.”

“I know,” Roman said. “Because I wanted them to like me. But Papa hugged me really hard and welcomed me to the family. It felt really good, Dad.”

“Your Papa had a way of making people feel good about themselves no matter what. When I was...about your age, Roman, I had my first girlfriend. She was Irish, and she broke up with me because she said her father told her that since I was Italian, she wasn’t allowed to date me.”

“But...that’s really dumb,” Roman said.

“Yeah. It is, buddy, but it broke my heart at the time. I was 15. I thought I was in love. Didn’t really find out what love really is until I met your mom, who coincidentally also happens to be Irish, so I guess that whole thing was bunk. Anyway, your Papa sat me right down and told me that being Italian was nothing to be ashamed of, that we’re all different, and that I shouldn’t let the wrong woman get me down. He humored me, even though I’m guessing at the time, he probably thought I was pretty silly. He made me feel better, though. Like I mattered again. He always...every good person he ever met mattered to him.”

“Just like you,” Seth whispered.

“Yeah...yeah, he definitely taught me about treating other people with respect, even when you want to tear their faces off.”

Seth giggled again, a soft sound.

“I’m gonna miss him, guys,” Tony whispered.

“He’s still with us though, Dad,” Roman replied. “I think he’s looking out for all of us in Heaven, ‘til we see him again. You know?”

“Yeah...I know. Thank you, Roman. I needed to hear that. Boys...I love you. God knows I do.”

“We know it too, Dad, and it’s because you tell us every single day,” Roman mumbled into their father’s neck.

“That’s something else I learned from Papa Angelo,” Tony said quietly. “The importance of telling your loved ones how you feel every chance you get because you just never know...so I’ll say it again, for good measure. I love you boys. I love your mom. The four of you are the greatest gift I’ve ever been given.”

“We love you too, Dad,” Seth replied resolutely.

“Yeah...we love you, Dad. You and Mom and Dean and Seth were my best gift ever,” Roman said. He felt a little warm and fuzzy on the inside. Then he sat up.

“I think...I think I’m going to go talk to Dean.”

“Has Dean completely lost his mind yet?” Tony asked softly.

“Nah. He’s just kind of avoiding everyone. But you know Dean, Dad; he might have done that anyway depending on his mood.”

“Yeah...listen, Roman, I’ll talk to him, okay? I appreciate how you always take care of your brothers, especially when it’s a hard time, but you guys are my responsibility. Why don’t you two go see if you can help Mom with anything.”

“Yeah...okay, Dad,” Roman said. “C’mon, Seth.”

______________________________________________

 

Tony felt like his heart was breaking, but he’d hidden from his family long enough. Dean needed him now, it seemed, and it was time to shift from grieving son to comforting Dad. He wasn’t sure he was strong enough right then, but he had to try. And anyway, he told himself, there was really no reason he couldn’t do both. By now, it was no secret at all that feelings were something Dean sometimes struggled with, and Tony figured it was good for him to see that he wasn’t the only one and that it was nothing to be ashamed of.

He found his son sitting in a quiet bedroom in the dark, back against the wall. He could tell Dean had been crying. When he looked up, his eyes were wide and his lower lip stuck out just a tiny bit. He looked so sad that Tony felt his heart break all over again. He walked over and sat down across from his boy.

“Talk to me,” he said softly.

Dean didn’t say anything for long moments. Tony could see that he looked so conflicted.

“I just...Mom says it’s going to get easier. But it’s taking too long. I just don’t want to hurt anymore. I don’t want to be here. I want to go home and I want him to come back.” Dean sounded utterly defeated.

“Fuck if I don’t know how that feels,” Tony replied quietly. “ I want to go home back to our life and I want for this to never ever have happened. I know, son. I’m with you.”

“I’m not angry at him anymore. Now I’m just sad,” Dean revealed.

“It’d be okay if you were, you know. Still angry, I mean.”

“Yeah...yeah, maybe, but I’m not. I just feel hurt. And...Dad, I know he’s gone. But I keep expecting him to come through the door with that big dumb smile on his face, like this was all just some bad joke.” Dean sighed. “Of course, then I’d have to be mad all over again, but I think I’d rather be pissed. It’s less painful.”

“It takes a lot more energy, though,” Tony reached for Dean, who sighed and let his father wrap an arm around his shoulders. “We’re programed to feel a lot of different things, but anger is a choice more so than many other feelings. I mean you can’t avoid it all the time, but it does kind of seem like a waste to hang on to it, you know?”

Dean nodded after a few moments. He stared down at his hands, then looked up at his dad.

“I don’t know if I can do it,” he said, his voice barely a whisper.

“Do what, buddy?”

“Go to the funeral.”

Tony stopped for a moment. This revelation was hardly shocking, but it wasn’t what he expected Dean to say, either. He considered how to respond. Of course, he wanted his son there, because he wanted him nearby, which he figured was kind of selfish. But the main reason he wanted Dean to go was because he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Dean would regret it if he didn’t. He also knew that had to be a decision that Dean came to on his own, so finally he said,

“It’s okay, buddy. It’s your decision, Dean.”

Dean looked surprised.

“Really?”

“Really. I’m uncomfortable at funerals, too. And I know Papa would understand. Just do me a favor and think really hard about it before deciding, okay? Think about how you’ll feel if you don’t go, too. Either way, I respect your choice.”

“I love you, Dad,” Dean finally fell into Tony’s arms, and Tony held him tight.

“I love you too, Dean. Will you do me a favor?”

“Sure. What is it?”

“We’re all hurting right now, bud. You don’t have to sit in here and hide from it. Let’s go out there and hurt together, okay? I don’t know about you, but knowing I’m not alone in this helps just a little.”

Dean considered this before nodding.

“Okay,” he whispered.

_________________________________

 

Dean ended up going to the funeral, which made his mother proud. She knew from talking to Tony that he’d been uncertain about it, and even the morning of, no one knew for sure what he planned to do---until he emerged from the hotel bathroom dressed to the nines in his new slacks, a crisp blue shirt, and a tie (which was a little crooked but Lily just motioned him over and straightened it out; she was just so impressed with his effort, and anyway, when did Dean get a tie?). Before they left the hotel for the church, they sat the boys down.

“Listen, guys,” Tony started. “I know it’s been a really rough couple of days. You’ve all had to learn about a loss like this, and it’s hard, but you’ve all done so good.”

“We want you to know,” Lily continued, “that this service and the lunch afterwards are going to be a celebration of Papa’s life, even though it will probably also be sad. We want to remember and share all of the things we love about him. And...Daddy and I have cried quite a few tears this last week, and you need to know that we probably will cry some more before this is all over.”

“What we’re really trying to tell you,” Tony picked the talk up, “is that whatever you guys feel is okay. And you don’t have to cry, but you need to know that if you do, that’s completely acceptable. Doesn’t mean you aren’t strong, and no one has to be strong today anyway. Okay?”

The three boys nodded, although Dean looked a little dubious, and Tony drew them all into his arms.

“You guys and Mama are the reason I’m getting through this,” Tony confessed after a moment. “I just...I love you. All of you. I’m so blessed to have the family I’ve been given.”

They all cried a little that day, but Lily also witnessed strength from her boys that she always knew was possible, but surprised her a little anyway. For example, during the service, as Tony stood before the people gathered and delivered an incredible eulogy, Lily noticed from where she was seated between Roman and Seth that Dean’s face had begun to absolutely crumble, but before she could reach around Seth to offer him comfort, Seth had wrapped both arms around his older brother, and Dean had buried his face into Seth’s neck.

“I’m here, Dean,” she’d heard Seth quietly murmur into his brother’s ear. Lily felt her own eyes fill up.

At the burial, as Tony leaned over to say one last goodbye to his father, he broke down. Lily watched quietly as Dean approached his dad and hugged him close and whisper something in his ear, then watched her husband wrap his arm around their boy and they both cried openly together for a moment before throwing a white rose on top of the casket, linking arms, and walking off together. Again, she felt tears sting her eyes, the quiet pride in her heart growing even stronger.

It finally overcame her at the lunch after the service and she excused herself to go out to the lobby of the celebration hall and let herself cry. A few moments later, she felt a pair of strong arms grab her, and she looked up to see Roman’s piercing grey eyes, tear-filled as well, but he pulled her close.

“You said we’re not doing this alone, Mom. Remember?” She nodded and let herself let go on her oldest child’s shoulder for a bit, Roman patting her back, and there was absolutely nothing awkward about it. Once she felt a bit better, she looked up at her son.

“Really proud of you guys today, Ro,” she whispered. He smiled and a tear trickled down his cheek.

“Yeah, well...it’s all you and Dad’s fault anyway.”

“What do you mean?” Lily was curious.

“You’re the ones who took a chance on us. You’re the ones who taught us. You’re the ones who changed EVERYTHING.”

“That’s been our privilege,” Lily replied, brushing her thumb over Roman’s cheek.

Chapter Text

Two weeks later, several things happened. First of all, when report cards came home, the boys lined up in front of their parents to hand them over. They opened Seth’s first, and it was no surprise that he’d gotten straight A’s again. He accepted the sentiments of pride and the hugs and kisses with a blush. Then it was Roman’s turn. Six A’s and a B, in history, a subject that Dean knew his brother would always hate. Their parents knew it too, and they were no less proud or excited as they lavished affection on Rome, who tried to accept it graciously but who was grinning like a fool and clearly loving every minute.

Then Dean handed over his envelope with a sigh. He stared down at his feet.

Traditionally, this meant he hadn’t done so hot. There wasn’t much Dean liked about school. So when Tony opened the envelope, he scrutinized it, then handed it to Lily. She looked it over, then looked at her son.

“Dean Benjamin Girardi. These grades…” she began, and then she smiled at him. “Are incredible!”

“GOTCHA!” Dean shrieked, leaping into his parents’ arms with a giddy laugh.

Three A’s and four B’s. This was the best report card Dean had ever brought home, and the entire family knew it. He’d never had an A in any subject besides gym before, not in his whole life, but here he was with A’s in gym, Chem 2, and geometry, B’s in everything else, and not a single lower grade to be found. Normally his report card was full of C’s. He knew he’d done well this term, but he really wanted to surprise his Mom and Dad, and it had clearly worked. Lily hugged him so hard it hurt.

“Curse you, boy,” she said with a laugh. “Look at this. Look what you are capable of. This is amazing. All three of you---I think this calls for a celebration, Dad.”

“Man. I’m not sure what we could possibly do to reward these guys for all their hard work. That on top of the family commitment they’ve all shown us lately...guess we’ll just have to go to Dave & Buster’s.”

The next thing that happened was, Roman turned 16. He was allowed to throw a party at the house the night before his actual birthday, complete with girls, but they also ordered several 6-foot subs, numerous buckets of chicken wings, chips, dips, sugar cookies, and a massive cake. Dean wasn’t sure which he found most exciting.

The pool was open, and the party was a total blast; it was 2 am before the last guests left. Dean passed out on the couch. Seth made it to the recliner, snuggled against Roman, who had collapsed in the very same chair mere seconds before Seth did. They all woke up late the next morning with blankets tucked around them, evidence of their parents’ TLC, and the smell of blueberry pancakes wafting from the kitchen.

They trudged out, where they were greeted by their mother smiling from ear to ear. She immediately grabbed Roman into a hug and started smothering his face in kisses. Seth and Dean snickered; it was ridiculous, but Roman appeared to be eating it up. He made no protest as Lily held him out at arm’s length, then drew him close for another smoochy assault. She looked him over again.

“I can’t believe it. My baby is really 16. I just...when did this even happen?”

They ate breakfast together and discussed the evening’s plans.

“Daddy made reservations at Texas de Brazil,” Lily told them. The boys all looked up.

Texas de Brazil was a Brazilian steakhouse. Basically how it worked was, there was a massive salad bar with virtually everything on it, and you could load up and return as many times as you wanted, but the big draw was the meat. Each person received a card with a green side and a red side, and as long as the green side was facing up, servers would come round to the table with various types of meats---anything you could think of, really---and carve chunks off. Then once you were full, or you just needed a stomach break, you flipped your card to the red side and they stopped coming by. The boys had always wanted to go, but at $46 a person, their parents, understandably, had saved this place for a special occasion.

“But a 16th birthday is a huge event in a boy’s life,” Lily said, explaining the logic. “And it’s not like you guys don’t eat so I’m 100% confident that we’ll get our money’s worth.”

They all skipped lunch to save room.

Dean helped his mother wrap Roman’s birthday presents that afternoon while Seth kept Rome occupied with video games and about a million Seth-like questions. He enjoyed spending some quiet time with her, even though it was Roman’s birthday. And because Roman was 16, there was quite an abundance of gifts, so it took a little while. Dean took that opportunity to discuss the huge surprise the family was planning for Rome.

“Mama? Will he get it at the restaurant?”

“No. It’ll be here when we get home. A friend of Daddy’s is bringing it while we’re gone and leaving it out back so he won’t see it. But I’m counting on you and Sethie to help make sure we spend plenty of time out to eat tonight, okay?” Lily was tying a ribbon around the box that held a white Steve Young jersey, as Dean put the finishing touch on the new version of Roman’s favorite video game.

“He’s going to freak out, Mama.”

“That’s the plan, sweetie.”

“I can’t wait until I turn 16,” Dean confided to his mother.

“Man. I can. It’s hard enough for me to see one of my babies get older. The fact that all three of you will be 16 within about a year just kills me.”

Dean laughed.

“I know, but don’t worry. Seth still has to turn 15 first. What are we doing for HIS birthday?”

Lily grinned.

“I’m not sure. He’s mentioned Ciao Bella more than once, but he hasn’t told us anything definitive yet. You going to help me wrap for him too?”

“‘Course,” said Dean. “I like it when we get to talk just us. Mom?”

“Yeah, sweetie?” Lily asked, reaching for burnt orange polo shirt.

“Can I ask you something?”

“Always,” Lily smiled at Dean, a small sparkle in her blue eyes.

“Well...you’re a girl,” he began.

“All day every day,” she answered and Dean laughed.

“Okay,” he began, suddenly a little nervous because what he was about to tell his mother was kind of epic.

“If a boy...wanted to like...ask you out,” Dean started again, “what...what would he have to say to get you to say yes?”

Lily stopped what she was doing and gave Dean her complete attention at this topic.

“Well...I think under most circumstances, a simple ‘would you like to go out with me?’ would probably be sufficient,” she said slowly. “May I ask why?”

“Ummm...well,” Dean could not for the life of him figure out why this conversation was so hard. “See...there’s a girl...kind of.”

“Kind of?”

“Okay, definitely. But the thing is, I don’t really know her and I’m afraid I just like her because she’s pretty. Which she is, really really pretty. But I don’t want to go out with someone just because of that. What if I ask her and she has like no personality? Or what if she says NO?”

That thought was just too embarrassing. The he realized his mother was smiling like a dope. He could feel his face flush, and he pressed his hands over his eyes.

“You know what? Nevermind. Just forget I brought it---” Dean began, but his mom interrupted him.

“Dean,” she said softly.

“What?”

“First of all, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with asking someone out just because you find them attractive. It’s one date, not marriage. You can’t really get to know anyone if you don’t spend time with them, right?” Lily had a point.

“Well...I guess not,” Dean agreed.

“As far as what if she says no, that’s okay. Not everyone wants to hang out with everyone else, you know? Doesn’t mean you’re not awesome; there are a lot of wonderful men out there who wouldn’t have been right for me. But that’s okay. The thing is, if you never ask, you’ll have to waste time wondering instead and THAT doesn’t sound like much fun.”

“No. That’s true,” Dean said.

“And you know what a miserable start Daddy and I got off to,” Lily continued with a laugh. “So honestly, love at first sight might work for some people, but I sure as hell had to get to know him because my first impression wasn’t too pretty.”

“Well...I mean, I won’t see her again until school starts, probably,” Dean considered things. “So I guess I have time to think it over…”

“You do, if you want to wait,” said Lily. “Though I bet we can help you get her number if you decide not to put it off…”

Dean scooted over next to his mother and rested his head on her shoulder. She wrapped her arm around him and squeezed.

“I guess. I just don’t...I’m afraid if I ask and she says no, it’s really going to hurt.”

“Rejection CAN hurt,” Lily said. “But you don’t want to hang out with someone who doesn’t want to hang out with you and frankly, if she did say no, it’d be her loss.”

“I love you, Mom,” said Dean, snuggling closer to Lily for another hug.

“I love you too. Dean? Just exactly how pretty IS this girl?” Lily wondered.

“Pretty,” Dean replied. “Almost as pretty as you.”

“Keep giving answers like that, my sweetie,” Lily said softly, “and you will have absolutely no trouble getting this girl to go with you on a date.”

That night the boys stuffed themselves. Collectively, they ate 16 plates of food. Dean was always up for a good salad bar, and the meat---oh, the meat. He wasn’t actually sure how he walked out to the Escalade without needing to be rolled. When they got home, Roman opened his gifts and thanked his brothers and parents. Then Tony spoke up.

“Hey, Ro, do me a favor and go out back with the dogs, huh?”

Roman looked at him quizzically but complied. The rest of the family quickly followed him out---and they heard him shriek.

There in the drive sat a black Jeep Renegade with a giant bow on its top.

Roman’s eyes were massive and he was circling his new car. He kept repeating,

“This is mine? This is for me?” Dean thought it was adorable.

Tony handed Roman the keys, and Lily kissed his cheek.

“Happy birthday, Ro. We love you.”

Roman shook his head, then he whispered,

“Thank you. I love you too. Thank you so much. Hey---can I take Dean and Seth for a ride?”

Their parents exchanged glances.

“Tell you what. I think you have about 20 minutes of daylight left,” Lily said. “Why don’t you go cruise up and down the street for a bit but then I want you straight back. Sound good?”

“YES! Shot gun!” Dean exclaimed. He wasn’t even jealous. Roman was a good kid; an amazing son and brother. He deserved this. It was his turn for something fabulous.

 

___________________________________

 

The day after Seth’s 15th birthday, he woke up with a scratchy throat and sneezing. He didn’t feel awful, he claimed, and when Lily took his temperature, he didn’t have a fever, but they were slated to go to San Antonio the next week, so Lily opted to keep a close eye on him just in case. She made him lay on the couch and relax while she tucked a blanket around him and made him drink lots of Gatorade. Within an hour, he’d fallen asleep.

She came back into the living room with a load of clean laundry that she was going to drop off at Roman’s room for him to put away, but when she saw Seth, she froze for a moment. Then she looked him over.

He was laying on his back with his arms stretched over his head. His hair, while still curly, came down just below his shoulder now, and the weight of it had tamed the curls just a bit. He was finally building some arm muscle, and---when had Seth begun to grow chest hair? It was just a smattering, but it still pulled at Lily’s heart strings. Her baby was becoming a man. Soon the house would be empty again after being empty for so long---Lily shook her head, knowing that if she dwelled on it too long, she’d cry.

A few days later, she DID cry.

Dean came to her with tears in his eyes.

“Mom?” His eyes were round and glistening, his lower lip quivered, and with his hair hanging in his face and his arms hugging himself, he suddenly looked every bit like the 11 year old she’d taken in years before. Lily had been sitting at her computer looking through photos from their San Antonio trip, but the second she saw Dean, she shot over to him and wrapped him in a hug.

“What is it, baby? What happened?”

“I called Kenna,” he whispered.

“And Kenna is…?” Lily hadn’t heard that name before.

“The pretty girl,” Dean whispered miserably. Lily immediately knew where this was going, and tears welled up in her own eyes.

“Oh, baby boy,” she murmured, pulling Dean to the loveseat in her office, sitting them down without letting him go.

“She said she doesn’t go out with sophomores,” Dean snuggled against her, two tears trickling down his cheek. Lily sighed and felt a few of her own tears fall.

“Aww, sweetie. That stinks,” she ran her fingers through Dean’s hair. “You know what, though?”

“What?”

“That’s not even close to a reflection on you,” Lily kissed Dean’s cheek. “She was a sophomore too, once. Everybody is, right? So if she doesn’t want to go out with you just because of that, is she really someone you want to get to know better anyway?”

Dean shook his head and wiped his eyes.

“No. No, I guess not. Who needs her?”

“Not you,” said Lily softly, still stroking her son’s hair.

“Not me,” Dean agreed.

They sat together like that for awhile, and before long, Lily felt Dean’s shoulders relax. Then she said,

“You know, sweetie, there are going to be lots of girls. The right one for you is out there, but you’re 15 and there’s no real hurry.”

“I guess...it wouldn’t have worked out anyway,” a small smile formed on Dean’s lips.

“Oh? Why not?” Lily asked.

“Because she’s a Virgo and I’m a Sagittarius and we’re not compatible at all,” Dean grinned at his mom, and Lily couldn’t help but laugh.

Chapter Text

As the first anniversary of the boys’ adoption approached, Lily and Tony had planned a huge surprise. On August 1, Roman, Dean, and Seth arrived home from the Community Center to discover both their parents at home. Seth tensed; the last time that’d happened, it had been because Papa Angelo was gone. They piled out of Roman’s Jeep and rushed to the kitchen to find...a huge pile of suitcases? It didn’t make sense, and their mother and father were nowhere to be seen. It was Roman who noticed the envelope on the kitchen table that said “Brothers Girardi” on the outside. Roman opened it up and they read it together. It was a poem, a haiku:

lawn mower tools fridge
Jeep Toyota Cadillac
better find it fast

Seth looked at his brothers and grinned; okay, this was a game, and they were more than up for the challenge.

“These are all things that are in the garage,” Dean said. “There’s a fridge in there..there must be something in there.” Roman and Seth agreed.

The 3-car garage was empty of vehicles; all four were parked in the drive at the moment. It should have been a quick find, but the boys quickly realized that their parents were in it to win it, and nothing was hiding in plain sight.

“Maybe it’s inside one of the things in the poem?” Roman mused.

“Well, the cars aren’t even in the garage right now...and you can’t really hide anything in the lawn mower. I don’t see anything on it. But let’s check the fridge and the tool box!” Dean ran for the tools, while Roman hit the fridge. Seth busied himself inspecting the shelves on the far wall, and immediately he realized something didn’t look quite right. There was an extra box on the bottom shelf. Seth pulled it out, and it had a sign on it that read, “Open Me.”

“Guys!” He called to his brothers.

“Wait, what if this is a trick?” Dean asked.

“What kind of trick?” Seth was curious.

“I don’t know, but would you put it past Mom and Dad to like have pies fly out of it or something? Maybe we should take it outside to the grass.”

“Smart,” Roman muttered. The boys dragged the box out away from the cars and into the grass before carefully opening it up.

There were no pies, but inside was what looked like a small mountain and a bottle of clear liquid. Dean reached in and slowly lifted it out, then set it on the ground.

“Where’s the clue?” Seth asked.

“I don’t...there’s nothing else in here,” Dean began, but then something clearly dawned on him. “Wait...I think...I think this is a volcano.”

“A volcano? Why?” Roman asked.

“Because there’s a hole at the top, and this,” Dean had opened the bottle and was carefully wafting towards his nose, “is vinegar.”

“Ohhhhhhhh….so we pour some in there…” Roman got it.

“And then we stand back…” Dean continued to muse. He leaned over, poured some vinegar into the top, and then backed up.

The volcano started to shake, and a white vapor began to float out of it, and then, a small explosion of red liquid began to gush out, and with it, a sealed plastic bag with something white inside. All three boys whooped.

Dean picked it up to open it, and inside they found another poem, cinquain this time.

Mom
Quiet, Decorated
Working, Thinking, Saving
Shhhh...a genius is working here.
Blue Room

“Gotta be Mom’s office,” said Roman immediately.

They ran into the house, through the kitchen, and down the hall. The office door was partially closed, so they crept in slowly. All three of them looked around.

“Hmmmm...not really a whole lot of places to hide things in here…” Seth muttered.

Indeed, there really wasn’t. The room had shelves, a desk, a file cabinet, a loveseat, and a small table. The walls were blue, and Lily had various things hanging on them---mainly diplomas, certificates, and photos of the boys. Then their eyes all landed on the same photo at the same time. It was a pic of the three of them at the beach from the year before; their parents had put it on their Christmas card. They were all sitting cross-legged and side by side, Seth in the middle, and their mom had a copy in a frame on the wall. But someone had taken a marker and drawn coconut bras and grass skirts on each of them over the glass. Roman and Dean burst out laughing. Seth raised his eyebrows.

Dean lifted the frame off the wall and not shockingly, there was another envelope underneath it. Inside the envelope was another poem. This time, it was diamante.

Food
Delicious, Tasty
Dining, Chomping, Chewing
Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Dessert
Bonding, Talking, Having Fun
Sweet, Salty
Family

 

_________________________

 

The brothers looked at each other.

“Kitchen!” They all yelled at once.

The kitchen proved to be a difficult place to find a clue, as there were dozens of nooks and crannies and places to look.

“It says ‘dining’,” Seth mused. “Maybe it’s under the table?”

They checked but found nothing.

After searching every cabinet, the oven, the fridge, the pantry, and the drawers, the boys had come up empty. Dean even considered sticking his hand in the garbage disposal, but Roman had seen Final Destination too many times to let him. They were stumped. They all sat down at the kitchen table and looked at each other.

“We’re missing something. We’ve gotta be,” Seth muttered. Roman and Dean nodded, then Roman reached for the paper.

“We’ve got the room right. There’s just no other place in the house that it can be. What about...sweet and salty? Every word in this has to mean something, guys. What is sweet and salty?”

“Candied bacon,” offered Dean. Seth and Roman grinned.

“Yeah, but unless there’s a big pan of candied bacon in the fridge, and I sure didn’t see one…” Roman began and trailed off.

“Hey...remember the time Mom made candied-bacon-wrapped pineapple?” Seth asked.

“Damn...yeah. That was good stuff,” said Dean.

“What was that for? I can’t remember,” Seth wondered and Roman smiled.

“My Gotcha Day,” he said softly.

“Oh, yeah!” Seth’s face brightened. “I love our Gotcha Days.”

Gotcha Day was the anniversary of the days when each of the boys came home. They weren’t as big as birthdays in the Girardi house, but Lily and Tony always had a small celebration anyway.

“I hope we celebrate those forever,” said Seth.

“Bet we will,” Dean responded. “You know Mom and Dad; they never need an excuse for a celebration.”

Roman laughed.

“It’ll be time for a celebration if we ever figure this out. Sweet and salty. I really think that’s where we’re going wrong here. What’s sweet and salty and tasty?” He started to head to the pantry again when out of the corner of his eye, he saw it. Their father’s addiction.

Tony had a thing for honey roasted peanuts. It was kind of a family joke at this point and every Christmas the boys bought him a giant can and wrapped it for him. The rest of the year, he’d keep a can in the snack cabinet religiously and would tease that anyone who touched them was going to lose a hand. The snack cabinet was still open after Roman had searched it and suddenly he realized that there was more than one can of peanuts now sitting on the shelf.

“Guys! Look!” Roman walked over and grabbed the cans. There were three of them, and when he shook them, he could hear something inside but it definitely wasn’t peanuts. Instead, each can contained a brand new pair of sunglasses, and---

“Puzzle pieces?” Seth was confused.

“I thought we were doing poetry?” Dean was baffled too.

“A clue’s a clue, guys,” said Roman, spreading the pieces out on the kitchen table. Based on the colors in the puzzle pieces, they could tell instantly that it was a photo of their four dogs.

“Well, do we even have to spend time putting this together?” Dean asked? “It’s gotta be in the dogs’ room.”

The dogs’ room was a smallish room off of the laundry room. There were doggy beds and toys in it. That was where Lily and Tony had put the pups when they first brought each of the boys home, not sure how the kids would feel about puppy love. It didn’t end up being a problem; all three of them loved animals, but it was a precaution. These days the dogs didn’t spend a ton of time in their room, as each of the boys had a favorite who slept with them and the fourth was pretty attached to their parents, but occasionally, they liked to go in there during the day and sleep in the sun.

“I don’t know if this is for sure the dogs’ room…” Seth said slowly. “Some of these pieces look like they have parts of words on them. I think we have to put it together.”

“You two put it together, then. I’m going to search the dogs’ room.” Dean, stubborn as always, stood and left the table.

“I wonder how she got all four of them to sit for a picture,” Roman mused as he and Seth sorted pieces, and he noticed with a soft smile the tip of Seth’s tongue sticking out.

“Bet she bribed them with peanut butter,” Seth continued to focus. “Either that or she photoshopped it.”

They worked together in silence for awhile, before everything started to come together. It was definitely the four dogs, but they seemed to be holding the message on boards around their necks. As they finished they grinned at each other.

“Hey, Dean!” Roman called. “We got it!”

There in the photo was each of the dogs, and each did indeed have a tag around its neck. Honey’s read “It’s”. Gator’s said “in”. Wyatt’s said “the”. Stella’s said “bathroom.”

“It’s in the bathroom!”

Roman had to hand it to Seth; he was pretty smart about figuring this stuff out. They’d gone into their bathroom. The bathtub was filled with inflatable plastic pineapples, and buried within them was the next clue. It was another haiku.

kiddo, sweetie, bub
daddy and mama love you
let’s all celebrate

look for us outside
quickly because we’re waiting
with your final clue

They ran through the house and to the kitchen, then threw open the back door to discover---their parents.

Lily and Tony were seated in lounge chairs on the patio. There were tiki lights strung up and soft luau music playing. Both were wearing leis. Lily had a flower in her hair and was holding a coconut with a straw and a little umbrella sticking out of it. Tony was brandishing a ukelele and wearing a Hawaiian shirt. They both grinned when they saw the boys.

“You found us!” Tony beamed.

Lily pointed to the table, where there were three envelopes, one with each of their names. They opened them eagerly and found boarding passes to Kahului.

“What is Kahului?” Seth was curious.

“It’s a city on the island of Maui,” Tony replied.

“We’re going to HAWAII?!” Dean shrieked happily.

“YES!” Lily shrieked back.

“When?” Seth asked.

“Wait...these say our flight leaves at 8:45 tonight…” Roman noticed quickly.

“Yup!” Tony said happily, looking at his watch. “That means we have just enough time to load the car up with our luggage. Mom and I packed everything you could possibly need. We have a load of suprises planned for this trip. We just...we thank God every day for giving us the three of you, and we wanted to do something special to celebrate this very important anniversary with our very important, wonderful, loved boys.”

Chapter Text

The ride to the airport was filled with happy chatter, and the wait for the plane was ecstatic. They ate nachos and wings at a Chili’s near their gate, and the conversation never left the trip.

“How long have you been planning this?” Roman asked his parents.

“Well, to be honest, we’ve been kind of thinking about how we’d celebrate our famiversary for awhile,” Tony began, and all three boys burst out laughing.”

“Famiversary? Is that a thing?” Dean asked.

“It is now,” Lily giggled and wrapped her arm around Roman.

“Mom and I have always wanted to go to Hawaii,” Tony said. “You guys are old enough now to do some really fun stuff, and God knows, you’ve earned this.”

“We’ve also always wanted to take a really big family trip, and there’s no time like now.” Lily was still grinning from ear to ear.

“When will we get there?” Dean was practically vibrating from excitement, which made Roman smile.

“Well, the truth is, it’s gonna be a long night. But that’s part of why we opted to fly at night. Plus Hawaii is like 6 hours behind us. So we have a layover at LAX, but we don’t have to get off the plane, and then it’s about a 7 hour flight to Maui. When we get there, it’ll be morning here but it’ll still kind of be late tonight out there. We’ll get to sleep, sleep in, and then start the fun.”

“What are we going to do?” Seth was practically bursting as well.

“Anything you guys want to do,” Tony answered. “We’ve rented a condo, we’ll have a car, and we can very easily hop a plane to a different island if there’s something else we want to see, though Maui has a ton to offer.”

Dean was already Googling on his phone.

“Can we go to a volcano? Please?” He begged.

“It’s our trip, guys. We can do anything anyone wants to do. I promised Mom we’d go whale watching, and I want to go to an authentic luau, and there’s miles and miles of beach. You name it, we can do it. So volcano for Dean. Would you guys like to take surfing lessons?”

“WICKED!” Seth cried. “I’ve always wanted to learn how to surf! Can we swim with dolphins?”

“Yes,” said Tony diplomatically. “We can.”

“Are we going to have time for all of this?” Roman wondered.

“We should. We’ll be there for three weeks,” Lily answered. “I know that butts up against school starting, but we really want to do this right.”

Roman sighed happily. Three weeks in Hawaii would perfectly cap off their summer. He couldn’t wait to get there.

“So...whale watching, surfing, a volcano---wait! Can I have pineapple pancakes?!” Dean was practically beside himself with excitement.

“Sweetie,” their mom said, “we wouldn’t dream of letting you go to Hawaii without getting pineapple pancakes.”

One of the things Roman loved most about long flights was how Seth slept. He absolutely loved both of his brothers, but whenever one of them was out of the equation, that left a one-to-one parent to child ratio, so he got some extra time to talk to his mom. On the three and a half hour flight to LA, Roman found himself in the window seat in First Class, with his mom sandwiched between him and Seth. His little brother fell asleep on their mother’s shoulder before they even reached cruising altitude, so Roman and Lily talked about every topic under the sun, including---girls.

“Dean wouldn’t have wanted to date Kenna anyway,” he confided in his mother. “She’s just snobby. Like if you aren’t old enough or you aren’t popular enough, you don’t count. That’s not my kind of girl. And I think Dean would get bored with that pretty fast.”

“I think I agree. So how about you? Any relationships on your radar?”

Roman blushed. He couldn’t help it. His mother smiled at him.

“You know Megan Laird?” Roman asked Lily.

“Megan Laird...yeah. She’s in your grade, right? On the girls’ basketball team?”

“Yeah...that’s her.”

“Gonna ask her out?” Lily shifted so her arm was around Seth, allowing her to better face Roman.

“I don’t know...thinking about it.” Roman sighed.

“Pros?” Lily asked.

“She’s fun to talk to. Not snobby at all, eventhough she’s a really good player. Actually she’s kind of shy, I think.”

“Was she at your birthday party?”

“Yes, but she...I mean there were so many people, Mom. It was hard to really talk to anyone too much. I think she mostly sat and talked to Seth.”

Then Seth’s sleepy voice piped up,

“She did. She’s really nice, Roman. You should totally ask her out.”

Roman glared at Seth, and Lily burst out laughing.

“Okay, bub, you little eavesdropper,” their mother planted a kiss on top of Seth’s hair, then leaned over to plant another on Roman’s cheek. Roman smiled a little.

“She has a little sister, you know. If you’re interested,” Roman poked Seth, who wrinkled his nose.

“No thanks. Girls mess everything up. Right Dad?” Seth looked across the aisle at Tony, who was now fully observing their conversation. His eyebrows raised, and Roman saw him smile at their mom.

“There’s really no good way for me to answer that question, buddy,” he began.

“That’s for sure,” said Lily playfully. Seth yawned, and Lily’s hand found his hair. He was asleep again in under a minute. Lily turned back to Roman.

“I think if you like Megan, you should give it a go,” she said. “Worst thing that happens is she says no, and even then...I mean you just never know, Ro.”

“Roman’s got a crush,” Dean snickered softly, but one look from Tony silenced him.

“Did he tease you about Kenna?” Tony asked.

“No…”

“Then can it, boy.” Tony playfully bonked Dean on the back of his head before wrapping his arms around him and letting him lay across his lap. Roman heard Dean sigh happily. He let his mind wander back to a time when all of this closeness wouldn’t have been okay with any of them, and for about the trillionth time in the last year, he thanked God for giving him a real family.

Roman wasn’t sure when he fell asleep but when he woke up, his head was on his mother’s shoulder and he head a real crick in his neck. For a moment, he forgot where he was and he jumped a little, until he felt his mom squeeze his hand and nuzzle him.

“Shh...you okay?” Her voice was barely louder than a whisper, and Roman realized that he was still on a plane.

“Yeah...yeah, where are we?” On the way to Hawaii...Dean was now draped over Lily, and Seth was across the aisle with his head in Tony’s lap. When had he and Dean switched places?

“Somewhere over the Pacific,” Lily murmured.

“What about L.A.?” Roman fidgeted, trying to find a comfortable way to sit.

“Baby, you slept through that whole thing. We landed, we waited about an hour and a half, and we took off again. Your brother here whined the whole time,” Lily smiled fondly down at Dean.

“Because he had to sit still?”

“He had to sit still, he was bored, he was stiff, you were asleep, he was starving. I think really he was just totally exhausted because once we made him and Sethie trade places, he passed out on my lap and hasn’t moved since. Roman, are you sure you’re okay?”

“I’m fine. Why?”

“Because your expression looks pained,” Lily said. She reached up, removed Roman’s hand from his neck, and gently began massaging the same spot. Instant relief.

“I guess I slept funny,” he muttered, relaxing into his mom’s touch.

“You want to get up and stretch? Walk to the restroom?”

Roman sighed deeply and shook his head.

“Nah. I’m good. Don’t want to wake Dean trying to climb over him.”

“He’ll go back to sleep, kiddo.”

“I know. But I’m okay. Rubbing my neck helps.” Roman sighed again. He felt better now.

The darkness followed them all the way west, and when they landed in Hawaii it was 2:30 am local time. The boys quickly learned that didn’t matter out there, as they were still greeted at the gate by an entourage of lovely ladies, who place real flower leis around each of their necks. By the time they got their luggage and got a rented SUV, then drove to the condo they were staying in, it was past 4. Although he couldn’t see it well in the dark, Roman could hear the ocean outside the window of his bedroom. It lulled him, and he drifted off, excited for whatever adventures were coming his way.

 

When Dean woke up, he was freaking in HAWAII. It was a dream come true, really. Surfing, a real volcano, and pineapple pancakes? Seriously? Could life be better?

He laid in the bed in the room he was sharing with Seth for a long time before getting up. The condo was more like a townhome, Dean decided, and it had just three bedrooms. They’d played Rock, Paper, Scissors to determine who would get their own room first, and Dean had lost to Roman of course, but he didn’t mind. He actually kind of liked sharing with Seth. In an unfamiliar place, the sound of his little brother’s soft breathing helped him relax, and he knew Seth was perfectly happy to not be by himself.

Eventually, though, he began to hear movement downstairs, and he knew he was too excited to go back to sleep. So he got up and found his mother in the kitchen making coffee.

“Mama?”

Lily immediately turned and grinned at him, which made Dean smile a goofy smile as well. After all these years, he still couldn’t get past the way his parents were always legitimately happy to see him. Dean scooted over so he could hug his mom.

“Good morning, sweetie. Sleep okay?” Lily began trying to smooth Dean’s hair down, which suited him just fine. He knew it was probably all over the place.

“What are we gonna do first?” Dean wanted to know.

“Well, right now, you and I are going to go sit and watch the ocean on the porch while your brothers sleep,” Lily replied. “Daddy went to the corner store to get some cream and stuff, and then he mentioned getting donuts. We need to grocery shop, and then we’ll probably make a plan.”

“Can I have some coffee?” Dean asked.

“Since when do you like coffee?”

“Since we don’t have any Gatorade yet.” Lily smiled at him again.

“Fair enough,” she said.

Dean poured himself about half a cup, wrinkling his nose. He really didn’t like coffee, but he figured it couldn’t hurt to try some again. He took a sip and fought back a gag. Nope, still gross. Maybe when Dad got back with the cream and sugar, it could be salvaged.

“What day do I get to see my volcano?”

“I don’t know yet. We have to look into it, sweetness,” Lily sipped her coffee, staring out at the incredible view before them.

“But...we’re really gonna do it, right? Right, Mom?” Dean knew he sounded childish but he was desperate to try this.

“Of course we are,” Lily said. “But Maui doesn’t have any active volcanos, so we’ll have to go to another island, and logistically, that takes some planning. Don’t worry, Dean. Everybody’s going to get what they want out of this trip. We have all kinds of time.”

Dean smiled at her.

“I know...thank you for bringing us here, Mom. I’ve always wanted to see Hawaii.”

“Me too,” Lily said. “Wanna help me figure out some meals?”

“Okay,” Dean agreed.

They’d agreed on lasagna, burgers with all the fixings, and chicken enchiladas by the time Tony returned, although Lily swore up and down that they’d be eating out a bit too because she was NOT spending her entire vacation cooking. Dean giggled at that, and bit into a coconut donut. It was glazed, and it was still warm. He groaned happily.

Tony glanced at his cup before looking back at Dean.

“When did you start drinking coffee?” Lily laughed.

“I asked him the same question. Turns out he started this morning and by the looks of it, he’ll be quitting some time this afternoon.”

Dean grinned.

“Well, I guess you’ll have to find something else, then,” said Tony. “I picked up a few things. Go look in the kitchen.”

Dean did, and was thrilled to find an ice cold tangerine Gatorade waiting for him in the fridge.

When he returned to the patio, his parents were pouring over different brochures.

“Okay, Dean,” said his dad. “In order to do this volcano trip, we leave Maui and fly to the Big Island. Then we have to rent a car and drive to Mt. Kilauea. Then we take a helicopter ride over the volcano. There are flights to and from every day. Sound good?”

It sounded amazing, and Dean told his father so.

“Good,” Tony said. “Let me make some calls and we’ll see when we can get time for all 5 of us.”

Dean began to feel reasonably giddy.

Seth and Roman woke up before much longer, both begging to go down to the beach. Their parents agreed that Lily would take them while their dad went grocery shopping and scheduled their trip to see the volcano. Within minutes, all three boys were in their bathing suits and ready to go.

Lily sprayed them all with sunscreen. It was fabulous. The water was clear and blue. The waves weren’t too rough yet, and because it was barely 9 am, there weren’t many people yet either. None of them hesitated to make a beeline for the water. It was so warm. Dean laid right down on his back and let the waves wash over his legs and belly. This must be why people said Hawaii was paradise.

A couple of hours later, Tony joined them at the beach, proclaiming that the shopping was done and he’d already put together the lasagna for that night’s dinner, and oh by the way, they’d be going to see the volcano tomorrow.

“Tomorrow?!” All three boys shrieked at the same time. Their father grinned.

“Starting the trip off right,” he said.

For the first day the family was content to just relax, enjoy the beach, and enjoy each other. Over dinner that night, Tony went over with them some of the things that had been planned.

“So we’ll do the volcano tomorrow,” he said, “and then on Wednesday, whale watching. Both of those nights it would probably be best to eat dinner out. On Thursday we’ll have a rest/beach day and then on Friday, I signed you three up for surfing lessons. You’ll go Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.” The three boys cheered.

“Friday evening we’re going to a real luau, complete with a pig cooked in the ground.”

The next day was more or less the greatest day of Dean’s life. Mt. Kilauea pretty much constantly erupted, so there was lava flowing downhill into the ocean most of the day and night. It wasn’t the explosive kind of eruption that most people thought of, but Dean still thought it was wicked cool anyway. And the helicopter pilot was awesome, flying as low as he dared. Dean told his father that if he hung by his feet from the landing gear, he could probably touch the lava. Tony had laughed, but Dean noticed he placed himself between Dean and the door after that.

The helicopter ride lasted about an hour, but Dean wished it could last forever. When it was over, Lily and Tony took the boys to the Kilauea Lodge, where they served pineapple pancakes all day. Dean wasn’t sure this day could get any better. After they ate, they perused the lodge gift shop, where all three boys came away with t-shirts, and Dean also got a travel mug, a lava rock, and a wicked holographic poster of lava running down the side of the volcano. As far as days went, this one had been pretty fabulous. By the time they arrived back at the the condo on Maui, Dean had just enough energy left to hug and thank both of his parents before he crashed into his bed and dreamed of volcanos all night.

Chapter Text

Seth woke up the morning after the volcano expedition feeling nervous. As much as he wanted to go whale watching, and he did, he’d never been on a boat on the ocean before, and he’d done some reading and knew that the boat wasn’t very big and it had to go pretty far out if they were to actually see anything. He wondered if he got seasick. He never really had trouble with motion sickness in the car or in a plane, and he had never had trouble on a boat on a lake, but a lake didn’t have waves.

It’d be okay, though. Roman and Dean would be there. So would Mom and Dad. Seth had to admit that seeing how happy the volcano trip the day before had made Dean gave him great satisfaction. He couldn’t wait until it was his turn to plan one of their days. He really wanted to swim with a dolphin. And Maui was supposed to have an amazing aquarium. And maybe they could watch some sea turtles.

All three of the Girardi brothers loved animals, beneficial since their home was a refuge for so many. They each had a favorite dog and a favorite cat. Seth loved it when Wyatt slept with him at night. It usually only happened in the winter when it was cooler outside, but that was okay. Then there were the horses, which were fun to ride, feed, and help care for, and the giant fish tank their parents had bought them one Christmas, and plus, Dean had a salamander. He’d wanted a gecko but PetsMart hadn’t had any that he found satisfactory, so he’d settled on the red and black amphibian instead. Dean named it Killer.

Those were all normal pets though, even Killer, and the thought of spending time up close and personal with something a little more exotic was exciting.

But first, Seth had to get through whale watching. The trip out was easy enough; the water was fairly calm early in the morning. And it was nothing like the kind of ocean water he was used to seeing, either. The water in Galveston, even from afar, appeared gray or brown, from the shallower water and the sand getting kicked up often. This water, though, was bluish green as far as the eye could see. They were out far enough now that the land was just a tiny speck in the distance. It was Dean who saw it first.

“Look, Seth!” His brother breathed softly, while reaching for their mother’s hand.

And there it was.

The amazing humpback whale was close, maybe 100 yards from the boat. It’s deep gray skin was a stark contrast to the blue water. Seth felt his mother squeeze his hand as all five Girardi’s gathered at the railing. Seth thought about all of the words he knew, but the only one he could think of that was appropriate to describe this magnificent creature was majestic.

About 50 yards to the east---or was it south? Seth wasn’t sure) another whale surfaced at that moment, and it sent a tremendous spout of water up through it’s blow hole. Everyone on the boat cheered. Shortly after, a third, this one slightly smaller, came to the surface. Now there were three of the gorgeous animals within 100 yards of the boat. Seth caught his breath in his throat. The first whale, not as big as the second but larger than the third, flicked it’s tail out of the water and brought it back down with a mighty splash. The smallest whale followed suit, and then the big one rolled to the side, waving it’s pectoral fin in the air.

“It’s waving at us!” Seth was truly delighted. Then he looked up and noticed tears streaming down his mother’s cheeks.

“Mom, why are you crying?” Roman asked, suddenly alarmed. Their mother smiled.

“Sometimes life is just so beautiful that you get overwhelmed with emotion and it has to go somewhere,” was all Lily said. She didn’t have to explain though. Seth knew exactly what she meant.

They spent their Thursday beach day just relaxing. Seth had been in the water a few times and was half asleep on his pillow in the sand when his gaze fell to Dean. He was off on his own, but he was talking to a very beautiful girl. She was clearly Hawaiian, with long straight dark hair, tanned skin, and almond shaped eyes. Seth watched with interest as his brother leaned in close to her, listening intently to whatever she was saying. Then Dean said something and she threw her head back and laughed. Seth made a mental note to file this information away for later.

When Seth woke up on Friday morning, he leaped out of bed and began digging in his clothes for a clean bathing suit, not bothering to keep quiet.

“What,” Dean groaned, “are you doing? What time is it?”

Seth looked at his phone.

“It’s 7:14. C’mon, we gotta get up. It’s surfing day!”

That got Dean’s attention in a big hurry.

He joined Seth in the hunt for a bathing suit and within 10 minutes they were standing in the kitchen trying to decide what they wanted for breakfast. Even their parents hadn’t come down yet.

Seth opened the fridge.

“Want bacon and eggs?”

Dean looked at him incredulously.

“Are you kidding? I don’t want to sink my surfboard! Don’t we have anything lighter?”

Seth continued to dig.

“How about yogurt, fruit, and granola?” His brother nodded.

“Yeah, that’s better. Pass me the cantaloupe.”

They sliced fruit together, quietly, until their father appeared in the kitchen, bleary eyed and stumbling.

“Coffee,” he croaked. Seth offered him a cup, and Dean placed a bowl of fruit and yogurt on the table in front of him.

“Hmmm…” Tony said after taking a few sips. “You two should make breakfast more often.”

“It’s just yogurt, Dad,” said Dean, smiling.

“I know but it hit the spot,” Tony replied. “Listen, guys, I want to talk to you about something. Your mom isn’t really keen on you guys surfing today.”

Tony held up his hand when Dean began to protest.

“Now, just listen. She’s not going to say you can’t. But it’s a huge leap of faith for her to be supportive of this. I guess what I’m just asking is that you guys take your lessons seriously and be careful. Okay?”

Seth nodded.

“Of course, Dad,” he replied.

“If this goes well, I could totally be convinced to buy you guys some surfing equipment to use at the Gulf. I mean they don’t have GREAT surfing at the Gulf but still.”

The idea of having his own surfboard excited Seth greatly. It just looked so much fun. The boards were colorful, and the people riding them were hot. Not that Seth expected to become hot himself just by learning how to surf, but it couldn’t be a bad start, could it?

Once ready, Tony took the boys down to a place called Surf’s Up to meet their instructor and get started. He introduced himself as Kai, and right away Seth noticed that he was a little pushy, but he pushed that thought out of his mind as he was introduced to a broad selection of board choices. Seth chose one that was green and black with a purple flame right down the center. Roman’s was all black with some red tribal detail on one end, and Dean opted for electric blue with green, yellow, and orange splashes of color all over. Even Tony got in on the fun, with a board similar to Seth’s, except it was dark blue with a yellow flame.

Next, the boys tried on wet suits. Not necessary, Kai explained, but useful when you’re starting out because you wipe out a lot more than you stay up and the salt water hitting your skin hurts.

“Now, you guys have lessons for the next three days, so we’ll be keeping your equipment for you to use each time,” Kai said. “Once you’re done, if you want to rent the same stuff, that’s an option as well.” The boys all nodded, certain that they’d be surfing every day for the rest of the trip.

Once the equipment was checked out they headed to the beach, where the first thing they learned was how to wax their boards so they wouldn’t slip as easily. Then he walked them through the process.

“We’re going to go through each step one at a time,” Kai told them. “But no worries; my students are always up on their boards by the end of the first day. Then the next two days are spent honing the skills. So the first thing we’re going to work on is just catching a wave. To do that, we’re going to lay on our stomachs and use our arms to paddle out. When you see a wave that looks like it has some power, you use your arms to turn around, and then you let the wave carry you back in. Watch me.”

It looked easy enough, when Kai did it. And Tony was successful immediately. When the boys did it, it took several tries. Roman had the upper body strength to paddle out and then turn, but Dean and Seth rode the waves in backwards more than once before getting the hang of it.

“Okay. You guys are looking good,” Kai said. “Now the plan is that after you turn around, you get to your knees. That’s all I want you to do right now; just try and get to your knees and ride it back in. Remember: you WILL fall off the first few times. That’s okay. You’re tethered to your board and your board is buoyant. You won’t sink and you won’t drown---IF you don’t panic. This is gonna sound crazy, but when you fall, if you can’t immediately surface, try to let your body relax. Your board will pull you back up. Don’t try to fight; it wastes your energy. Just let your board carry you. Okay?”

All three nodded, and then they watched Kai demonstrate. He made it seem so effortless, but once the boys tried it was anything but.

Roman went first. He made it to his hands and knees okay, but he wasn’t in the right spot on the board, and when he tried to get up on just his knees, his board pitched forward and he wiped right out. But he came up laughing and as the waves brought him back to the beach, he stood up in the shallow water and picked up his board.

“This is amazing, guys,” Roman said gleefully. “This is incredible.”

One by one, Tony, Dean, and Seth all took turns and Seth agreed that it was incredible, although it took him seven tries before he could get to his knees steadily. It was all about finding your balance, Kai explained, as they took a break. By then, Lily had joined them to watch the remainder of the lessons, and she brought with her a snack of trail mix and bottled water.

“You gonna be able to walk tomorrow?” Lily teased Tony gently. “Aren’t you a little too old for this?”

“You’re only as old as you feel, Lu,” Tony responded, and he picked Lily up and ran right out into the water with her in his arms, Lily shrieking and laughing the whole way. Seth looked up to see Dean taking a picture of their display with his phone.

“You know, I always thought watching them behave like this would get old or embarrassing eventually,” Dean said to Roman and Seth. “But to be honest, the older I get the more fun they are. They really truly love each other, don’t they.”

It wasn’t a question, and the three agreed.

After resting a bit, Kai determined it was time to start trying to stand on the boards.

“You use your balance to steer,” he said. “Lean the direction you want the board to go. And remember, when you fall in, just don’t panic. Trust your board.”

Seth trusted his board, but he soon realized that either he didn’t trust the waves or he didn’t trust himself. No matter how hard he tried, he just couldn’t bring himself to stand up on his surfboard, even though Roman mastered it immediately and Dad and Dean didn’t require much practice. It wasn’t long before Seth was the only one not actually surfing, but each time he paddled out, it just didn’t feel right. Kai was getting impatient.

“Seth. Dude. Just TRUST YOUR BOARD.” Lily gave Kai a dirty look.

“It’s okay, bub. Better not to push yourself. It’s not like you have to stop practicing.” Seth’s mother patted his arm, but that only made him more determined.

Lesson time was running out and finally it was the last run before lunch time and stopping for the day.

“You can do it, Seth,” Roman and Dean both encouraged, while Tony shook his head.

“Just go with the flow, buddy, okay? Mom’s right; you’ll have plenty of time in the next two and a half weeks to keep practicing.” Lily just looked on, clearly slighly nervous.

Seth paddled out and immediately saw a wave that looked doable for him, but as he began to turn, he could feel his board turn sideways just a little. He didn’t think he’d be able to straighten it before getting to his feet, but dammit if he was going to be the only one who didn’t get it.
He could hear Kai yelling at him from the beach.

“Come on, Seth, stop thinking and just stand up!”

It didn’t feel right; Seth knew it didn’t, but he had to do it. He did his best to straighten up before getting to his knees, and then---he was standing.

It lasted about 15 seconds before he lost his balance and then the crooked board flipped over and up. Seth tumbled backwards into the wave. The board came down and hit him right on the top of his head. Momentarily stunned, Seth tried to remember what he was supposed to do. He opened his eyes to see if he could find light; if so he could just swim to the surface, but the saltwater stung more than he anticipated and immediately, he closed them. He tried to just keep still and wait to see if his wits came back but he was completely underwater and the only thing he could really think about was that his lungs were starting to cave in. He remembered Kai saying his board would carry him to the surface but he had no concept of where his board even was right then.

Don’t panic, he told himself. Yeah. Right.

He needed to breathe. He was going to pass out if he didn’t breathe.

You’re okay, he tried to tell himself. Be patient. Be patient.

But Seth’s body was crying out for air, and he couldn’t control it anymore. Frantic, he took a desperate breath. Then the entire world went black.

 

______________________________

 

Lily watched Seth try to stand on his surfboard, and then she watched him fall back into the water, which didn’t concern her at first; they’d been told a million times that they’d fall pretty often before they got it right. Her first clue that something was wrong came when Kai muttered an expletive, grabbed a life preserver, and headed into the water. Then Lily realized something---Seth wasn’t surfacing.

Again, that shouldn’t have been cause for concern; hadn’t they also been told not to panic and to just float? But it bothered her that the instructor had gone in after him. Kai and Seth finally reached the surface and Llly started to breathe a sigh of relief until she noticed what looked like blood on Seth’s face. Fear really set in when she realized that Kai had his arm across Seth’s chest and seemed to be holding him up---her baby wasn’t moving. She and Tony looked at each other, and Tony began to run straight into the water. As Kai pulled Seth in, Tony picked him up completely. Lily was at their side by that point.

“What’s wrong? What happened? Where is he bleeding?” Seth’s eyes were closed but he was coughing and choking, then he gagged and vomited sea water. Tony wasn’t answering Lily; instead he was trying to wake their son.

“Seth? Hey. You’re okay. We’ve got you. It’s okay. Seth, can you hear me?”

Lily forced herself to calm down as Tony sat Seth down in her waiting arms. He was still coughing, but he opened his eyes.

“Mama,” Seth managed to stutter before slouching down against her. He was trying to lie down, but Lily held him in a sitting position.

“No, no. Upright. Shhh...I’ve got you,” she patted Seth’s back as Tony wrapped a towel around them both. “Just breathe, bub. Just relax and breathe.”

Seth did as his mother instructed and after a few minutes, he stopped gasping and while he still coughed intermittently, he began to relax into Lily’s embrace. She rubbed his stomach.

“What happened?” Tony asked quietly. Seth just shook his head and held onto his mother, clearly still stunned.

“Ro, grab a bottle of water,” Lily instructed. Roman did as he was told, and Tony held the bottle to Seth’s lips.

“Small sips,” Lily murmured.

Just then, Kai returned with an oxygen tank, although upon examining Seth a little closer, all of the adults agreed that he didn’t seem to need it. Lily began gently searching Seth’s hair until she saw the source of the blood---a small gash on top of his head. It wasn’t deep, and it had already stopped bleeding, and she could tell it wouldn’t require stitches. She also noticed with relief that a bump was already forming.

“I saw the board hit his head,” Kai explained. “So I just took off. You okay, Seth?”

Seth nodded. Lily could feel that he was calmer now, resting his head against her shoulder and breathing normally, although he did still cough here and there. She hugged him tight. For a long time, no one spoke, except for the occasional murmur to Seth that everything was okay.

“I was trying...I was really trying,” Seth mumbled. Kai smiled at him.

“I know. You did great. Tomorrow we’ll keep trying, if you’re up for it.”

Lily couldn’t quite believe what she was hearing.

“No, I really don’t think---” she began, but Seth interrupted.

“No, it’s okay, Mom. I’ll be fine, I just...I just need to rest today and tomorrow I’ll be fine.” Seth punctuated his speech with a fit of coughing, and that was all Lily needed.

“No. I don’t think so. Seth, boys---I’m sorry, but no more surfing.”

“WHAT?” All three boys yelled in unison, and even Tony seemed about to protest.

“That’s not fair!” Dean cried.

“Mom, please!” Roman argued.

And then Seth jumped to his feet.

“Will you STOP treating me like a baby?” Lily froze.

“Seth. Bub. It’s my job to protect you from getting hurt---” Seth interrupted her.

“Stopping me from living isn’t going to stop me from getting hurt!” Seth snapped. He sounded furious. “I’m sick of this. ‘Poor little Seth messed up again’: now you’re just going to ruin everyone’s fun. I’m not quitting, Mom. I WANT TO DO THIS. And if you stop me---I’ll never forgive you!”

With that, Seth stormed off, Roman and Dean hot on his heals. Lily sat there stunned. Seth had never spoken to her that way before; not once could she remember him having an outburst like that. It hurt her heart a little but she had to steel her resolve. Clearly, surfing was dangerous…

Tony interrupted her thoughts.

“Lu,” he began.

“No. Don’t try to talk me out of it. He could’ve died, T. He could’ve died right in front of us and I’m supposed to let him just go back and do it tomorrow? No, I don’t think so.”

“Lily. He’s fine. I know you were scared and I know Seth’s your baby but you can’t keep sheltering him his entire life---”

“OUR baby, in case you’ve forgotten, and if you think I can’t---”

“Will you listen to yourself? Just listen to yourself. Lily. You’re actually sitting here telling me that you intend to try and prevent our child from growing up. I’ve got news for you. They’re going to grow up, Lu. I know how you feel and I hate it too, but they’re going to grow up with or without us and if you try to stop that from happening---it’s going to be without you.”

Lily started to cry then.

“Oh, don’t give me that,” she said through her tears. “Seth is angry right now. He’s allowed to be angry. But it’s still up to us to keep him safe.”

“Babe, we weren’t there to keep him safe the first 12 years of his life. I know you want to make up for lost time, but he’s endured so much more than an accident surfing today. You can’t bubble wrap him, Lu. You can’t bubble wrap any of them. They have to learn. They have to grow. You...you’re the most amazing mother in the world, Lily. You truly are. But part of the reason for that is that you let them spread their wings. Don’t clip Seth’s, okay? He’s the only one who hasn’t really tried to spread them yet. You can’t stop him from learning to fly, babe. You can only help him learn the right way.”

Lily sighed; he was right. She had overreacted.

“Yeah...yeah. I know,” she whispered. “Just...seeing you and Kai dragging him out of the water...and he wasn’t really moving...and wings or not, he’s still my baby…”

“I get it. It scared you. It scared me too. But my guess is it scared Seth most and he needs us now to let him know that it’s okay to keep going.”

Lily hadn’t thought about it like that, but it made sense.

“I think...I owe Seth an apology.” Lily stood up. Tony stood too, and wrapped his arm around his wife.

“This is why I love you,” he said with a smile.

Chapter Text

Tony and Lily walked hand in hand back to the condo. Dean was in the kitchen layering a ton of stuff on a sandwich---it was at least 8 inches tall. Ham, turkey, pickles, onions, tomatoes, cheese---all the goodies.

“You gonna be able to get that in your mouth?” Tony teased.

“I’m always up for a challenge,” Dean shot back.

“Give it a go, sweetie,” Lily grinned at Dean, who glared back at his mother.

“Seth’s really mad at you and so am I,” he said. “This is totally wrong and unfair, Mom.”

Tony saw Lily’s face fall.

“Hey...buddy. Give Mom a break, okay. She’ll talk to Seth.”

“I know. He’s out back on the patio.”

“Thanks, sweetness,” Lily murmured. She headed to the door, and Tony followed, and he knew Dean wouldn’t be far behind. As they got to patio, they could hear Roman trying to reason with his brother.

“Dude. She was just afraid. That’s all. Give her a minute to calm down. And think of it from our perspective; it wasn’t fun to watch them dragging you out of the water.”

Seth never got a chance to respond, because right then Tony and Lily sat down at the table with the two boys. Roman had his arm around his brother, who was pale and, Tony noted, still coughing a little. Lily reached for Seth’s hand, but he pulled away from her.

“Listen...bub…” Lily began. Seth just shook his head.

“No, Seth, please. Look at me. Please.”

Finally Seth looked up to meet his mother’s gaze.

“I want to apologize, Seth. For getting upset with you earlier, and...I know I overreacted, bub. I’m so sorry I did that. That wasn’t okay.”

Seth’s wide brown eyes grew, and Tony could’ve spent a year archiving all of the different emotions in them. He realized that in almost 3 years, this was the first time Seth had ever acted out or raised his voice at his parents. What had he been expecting them to do? Tony couldn’t tell, but he knew by Seth’s expression that he hadn’t expected an apology.

“Mama, I’m sorry too. I’m sorry I yelled at you; I didn’t mean it, I just---” Lily pulled Seth into a hug and he stopped talking.

“You know how I’m always telling you guys to think before you act?” Lily asked Seth softly, and he nodded.

“I didn’t do that today. I was scared and I panicked and I made a call before I stopped to think about it. I shouldn’t have done that. But I just...have you ever been so afraid that all you could hear was your heart pounding in your ears?”

Seth nodded again.

“Yeah, I bet you have,” Lily’s voice was quiet and gentle. “That’s how I felt when I saw you earlier. I just...I couldn’t think. Which is exactly why I should have waited to calm down before I just decided you couldn’t go surfing again. That was wrong of me too.”

Seth looked up into his mother’s eyes.

“So...we don’t have to quit?” He sounded so hopeful. Lily’s eyes met Tony’s, and then she smiled softly at their son.

“That,” she said, “is entirely up to you guys. It still makes me nervous, but I won’t stop you.”

Dean and Roman both whooped and Seth buried his face into Lily’s neck for a moment before looking back up at her.

“I...I want to try again, Mama,” he whispered. “I really think I can do it; it just...if the board hadn’t hit my head, this wouldn’t have even happened. But it did and for a minute, I wasn’t sure where I was and by the time I realized I was underwater I couldn’t quite...but I really, really want to try it again.”

“Okay,” Lily replied. “Then you should try again. You’ve got two more days of lessons. I know you can do it, bub.”

Seth sighed and relaxed.

“Thank you Mom. Thank you, Dad.”

Tony grinned.

“We love you guys,” he said. “And I gotta tell you---surfing is completely rad. I’m glad you want to keep trying.”

The boys laughed.

“Rad? Really, Dad?” Roman teased.

“No rad? How about...groovy?” Tony tried again, to the delight of his children, who laughed some more.

“Nope,” Dean said, patting Tony on his shoulder as he polished off his sandwich. “Don’t worry, Dad. We’ll catch you up on the lingo later. Now when are we leaving for the luau? I’m starving!”

 

_________________________________

 

Dean had done quite a bit of eating since arriving in Hawaii just a few days before. The food alone would’ve been a good enough reason for him to live there the rest of his life but on top of that there was the amazing beach, volcanoes, surfing (and by the way, Dean was quite proud of how quickly he was catching on), whales, family time, late nights hanging out with his brothers---even the unexpected storm that had cropped up last night was considerably less frightening when he was sandwiched between Roman and his father while they watched a movie together in the living room of the condo.

But of all of the amazing things he’d discovered so far, easily the best one yet had been Kala.

Kala was a girl. A beautiful, native Hawaiian girl. They met on the beach and immediately struck up a conversation. Dean found her fascinating. Kala was 15. She had never once left the island of Maui. Her family believed in many traditional Hawaiian values; in fact, they were the ones holding the traditional luau that the Girardi family was attending that night. Which was reason enough for Dean, and for once, the food was an added bonus.

That night, they walked down past the beach where the luau was in full swing. Dean found Kala immediately and she led him over to the food tables, where she
proceeded to explain the Hawaiian cuisine.

Dean pointed to bowl that looked like salsa.

“That’s lomilomi,” said Kala. “It’s raw salted salmon mixed with tomatoes, sweet onions, and some other vegetables. It’s good.”

“Raw salmon? I’ll pass,” said Dean. “But this looks good.”

“That’s laulau,” Kala replied. “It’s pork wrapped in taro leaves and cooked slowly all day long. Try some.”

Dean did, and he thought it was delicious.

Kala walked him through the rest of the traditional Hawaiian dishes. Dean sampled most of it. The poi, a Hawaiian pudding, which you ate with your fingers. The chicken long rice soup. Hawaiian sweet potatoes. Kulolo and haupia cake. And that was all before the pig was uncovered and served. When Dean tasted THAT, he wondered if he’d died and gone to tropical paradise heaven.

Dean spent most of the rest of the evening with his family, mainly because when Roman and Seth saw him talking to Kala, they began making kissy faces and pretended to swoon. But as they were leaving, he hung back, trying to find her so he could tell her good night. Instead, she found him.

“So...beach tomorrow?” Dean asked her shyly. Kala nodded.

“Are you surfing again?” Kala’s brown eyes seemed to be searching his blue ones.

“Yeah,” Dean had told her about Seth’s scare earlier that day. “Seth says he wants to try again and I know Roman and I want to. It was incredible.”

Kala smiled.

“I’ll bet you did amazing,” she whispered and before Dean even realized what was happening, he found himself leaning in...and kissing her on the lips.

The kiss lasted all of ten seconds, but Kala seemed okay with it. When Dean pulled back, he was in shock. Had he really just---yup. His very first kiss, and the girl was pretty, AND she didn’t run away.

“See you tomorrow, Dean,” Kala said happily.

“Yeah...tomorrow,” Dean replied dreamily before turning to join his family.

When he caught up, the teasing began immediately.

“Ooooh, Kala!” Seth cried.

“Dean and Kala sittin’ in a tree,” Roman started in.

Dean punched both of his brothers’ arms.

“Shut up,” he said, but he didn’t deny it. He’d kissed a girl, dammit. She’d tasted like cherries. It lingered on his lips and he leaned back in his seat and sighed, halfheartedly enjoy his parents admonishing his brothers. His very first kiss. Hawaii DEFINITELY had its perks.

Chapter Text

Roman wasn’t jealous of Dean exactly, but it did feel strange to realize that he hadn’t kissed a girl first. He was happy for his brother, but that didn’t exempt Dean from the teasing that was required when one of your siblings experienced something like that. So he and Seth mercilessly picked on their brother, who paid them no mind because he was clearly in shock. Later that night, after their parents had finally made them go to bed, Roman slipped into the room Dean and Seth were sharing.

“So what was it like?” Roman asked him. Dean grinned.

“It was...like...it was crazy, dude,” was all Dean could really say.

“Did you kiss her or did she kiss you?” Seth asked.

“I guess I kissed her but she definitely kissed me back,” came the reply. “It was really cool, guys. Like I don’t even know what came over me; I wasn’t planning on kissing her but we were talking and all of a sudden...I just had to.”

Roman laughed.

“What are you going to do when we have to go home?”

Dean shook his head.

“I don’t know. I mean I like her. She’s cool. She’s fun to talk to. But I doubt she wants to come to Houston and as much as I love here, I don’t guess Mom and Dad will leave me. Is it wrong? To kiss a girl I can’t really start a relationship with?”

Roman considered this, searching for some brotherly advice, before he said,

“You know? I don’t think it is. I mean it would be wrong to like, string her along, but she knows as well as you do that you’re going home eventually. Doesn’t mean you can’t hang out while you’re here, though.”

Seth nodded.

“I agree with Roman,” he said. “Dean?”

“Yeah?”

“What...what was it like?” Seth asked softly.

“I don’t even know how to really describe it. I didn’t plan to do it; I honestly didn’t, but she said she thought I’d be really good at surfing and the next thing I knew, I just leaned forward and kissed her. It just felt right. And then it was kind of like fireworks going off in my head or something,” Dean grinned at his brothers. “You guys gotta try it sometime.”

The next morning, surfing resumed.

They had a different instructor this time, a young guy named Nohea. He was super laid back, and Roman immediately liked him.

“Now you guys show me where you’re at so far,” he told the boys and Tony. “Just go to the furthest step you’re comfortable with and then ride on in.”

Dean went first, and in his attempt to show off for Kala, who was watching from aways away, he paddled out, turned, got to his feet, and then promptly wiped out. Nohea was laughing as the waves dragged Dean back in.

“So you looked incredible until you actually were surfing. Get distracted?” The young Hawaiian gently teased.

Dean blushed.

“Want to go next?” Nohea asked Seth. Seth hesitated, then looked at Lily, who smiled.

“You can do it,” she mouthed, and Seth smiled. Then he nodded.

“Yeah. Yeah, I’ll try,” he said.

Seth paddled out perfectly, found a great wave, and turned back towards the beach. Then he rode the wave back in on his belly. Roman could tell he was disappointed; he was shaking his head as the water carried him back. Once he returned to the group, Nohea placed a hand on his shoulder.

“You did everything right,” he said. “Did your confidence take a hit?”

“Yeah, yesterday...I wiped out bad,” Seth said and Nohea nodded.

“It’s okay. You and I will work on that today. No worries. You really do look good, Hoaloha.” Roman knew that was Hawaiian for friend.

Tony went next, and he wobbled a little but he managed to stand on his board and ride it in without falling off. The three boys and Lily clapped and cheered, and then it was Roman’s turn.

He was basically flawless and he knew it, and as he approached the beach he could hear his father shouting,

“That’s my boy!”

Seth and Dean gathered around him, and even Nohea was impressed.

“That was excellent, Roman. Why don’t you, Dean, and your dad keep on practicing. I’m going to work with Seth here.”

After a few runs, Roman decided he’d like a break, so he left his surfboard with his mother and went for a walk down the beach. His mind was on Dean’s experience last night, and then it drifted to Megan. She was so shy, but they got along really well. She loved football and music, and she was a good student like he was. He liked her. He couldn’t deny that he had a crush on this girl, which was a strange feeling. Roman had considered her a friend since middle school, and he couldn’t peg when his feelings had begun to shift.

The truth was, as far as looks went, Megan was cute and pretty. She wasn’t a supermodel, but Roman didn’t care about that. It seemed to him that looks probably weren’t the best reason to choose someone to date. In fact, that’s why he ignored most of the girls at school. They were all over him, sure, but he knew for a fact that the majority just liked him because they thought he was hot, and that to him wasn’t a good enough reason to date someone.

Megan was different. She didn’t act all fake, or clingy, or ridiculous. She laughed at his jokes, and she could make him laugh too. There was no doubt about it; Roman wanted to ask her out. He wondered if Megan wanted that too.

As he was walking, he began picking up seashells. They were very different from the shells he and his brothers would find in Galveston. Those were mostly shades of brown and white. These shells were brilliant shades; reds, pinks, some blues, and even one that was purple. As Roman collected them, he had an idea.

He made his way back to where his mother was sitting, watching intently as Dean surfed in perfectly, and when he did she clapped and shrieked. As Roman approached, he noticed it was Seth’s turn.

“How’s he been doing?” Roman asked Lily.

“Well, he’s been doing really well with Nohea. They’ve been surfing tandem. But he’s about to try it on his own again…” Roman could tell his mother was nervous. He handed her the purple shell.

“This is for you,” he said, a bit clumsily.

“Aww...Ro, it’s beautiful! Where did you find a purple one?” Nerves momentarily forgotten, Lily wrapped her arms around her oldest. He rested his head on her shoulder as they watched Seth begin to paddle out.

“I walked down the beach. I found all these too. I’m going to make something out of them,” he said, as Seth caught a wave.

“C’mon, bub...you can do it,” Lily murmured, her arms tightening around Roman. “You got this, baby. What are you going to make, kiddo?”

“You got it, Seth!” Roman yelled, watching Seth slowly get to his knees, before answering his mother.

“Remember when we talked about Megan Laird on the plane? I want to make her a necklace. For when I ask her out...YES!”

Roman’s musing about Megan was interrupted when he realized that Seth had gotten to his feet---and stayed that way. He was gonna do it; he was totally going to ride the wave all the way in. Roman pulled Lily up and they made their way over to the stretch of beach where Seth would land, when Lily put her hand on his shoulder.

“I think that’s a great idea, Ro. I think that’s very sweet of you.” Lily turned back to Seth, who’d just stumbled out of the water.

“That’s MY baby!” She shrieked as she hugged Seth tight. Dean tackled them both a moment later, then Tony and Roman joined the family hug. Seth, clearly stunned that he’d actually done it, was trembling a little, but it didn’t take long for a broad grin to break out on his face.

“I’m proud of you, little bro,” Roman told him softly, and Seth hugged him.

“I’m proud of all three of you,” Lily said. “And Daddy. I’m proud of Daddy, too.”

They surfed until the lesson was over, and then they debated.

“I think we should go back to the condo, have some lunch, rest, and decide what we’re going to do tonight,” Tony said, and Lily agreed.

The boys helped their parents get out meat and bread for sandwiches, fresh fruit, and pasta salad.

“Okay, Roman,” Tony said once they sat down to eat. “What would you like to do on Monday? And Seth, you get to pick on Thursday.”

Roman was going to have to think about this, because there were so many things he wanted to do and see, but Seth had his answer in seconds.

“I want to swim with dolphins, and I want to go to the aquarium,” he said. “And also, I want to go to the Sensei Seafood Restaurant.”

Roman spoke up.

“I want to go there too, but for Monday, is there a way we can get to Oahu and hike up Diamond Head?”

Their father considered this.

“You know,” he said. “There’s a ferry that makes a trip from here to Honolulu…”

“A ferry...a boat?” Dean asked.

“Yeah...you know, we could take the ferry to Honolulu, go hike Diamond Head on Monday, and then spend Tuesday at Waikiki before coming back Wednesday morning...we could get a couple of hotel rooms and stay a few nights...what do you think, Lu?”

“You had me at Waikiki,” Lily answered. “But let me suggest that we also take a trip to Pearl Harbor while we’re out there, come back Thursday morning, and do the aquarium and dolphins on Friday. Then we still have our entire last week to just loaf around Maui or whatever else anyone wants to do.”

Tony’s eyes lit up; Roman knew their father had always wanted to go to Pearl Harbor. This was shaping up to be a really fantastic week coming up. As he munched on his sandwich, he daydreamed about hiking extinct volcanoes and what the view from the ferry must look like, and what it would be like if Megan was there to do those things with him.

Chapter Text

The whole week was incredible, and Lily felt so blessed. Her boys were having the time of their lives, which, as a mother, was one of the greatest things she could possibly experience. And her husband was also having a blast, which made her one happy wife as well. It didn’t seem like the excitement of Hawaii was ever going to end, and she knew they would definitely return one day.

Lily really needed this vacation. She hadn’t really talked to Tony about it, but she was struggling with the idea of the boys moving on in a couple of years. She’d always be their mother, and she was fairly convinced that they would always be a close family no matter where the kids wound up. But she had to fight back tears at the idea of having an empty house again, and so she watched them as they enjoyed their vacation and knew she would hold these memories close. The smile on Roman’s face as he hiked up Diamond Head. The determination on Dean’s face as he continued to master surfing. The delight in Seth’s eyes as he swam with the dolphins, and the sadness but hope that she saw in all three of them when they visited a wildlife refuge and saw injured animals that were being primed for release back into the wild, and some that never would be able to.

Then there was the twinkle in Tony’s eyes the whole entire time they were there, which reminded Lily very much of the man in his early 20’s that she fell in love with.
There was nothing imperfect about this trip. Lily savored every second of it. The last week, they’d spent their mornings surfing, relaxing on the beach, swimming in the waves, building sand castles. They even entered a building contest together and won when Roman designed them a sand Shire. The prize was a $250 gift card to Lahaina Grill. They gleefully invited their parents out for dinner on them, and they even paid for the excess like big kids. Lily couldn’t believe it. Even the flights home were amazing, when she had a long involved conversation with her baby.

“Mama,” Seth began, “I’ve always wanted to go to college, and get a law degree, so that I can be in the FBI like Daddy.”

“I know,” Lily answered him, rubbing the back of his hand with her thumb.

“But I don’t think I want to do that anymore,” he continued.

“No?”

“No. I want to work with animals, Mama. Not just dogs and cats. I want to work with wildlife that’s been hurt, and fix them, and return them back to where they belong. And I want to raise awareness about them too. Not necessarily in Hawaii but just...somewhere.”

“Seth, I think that’s wonderful. I think you’ll be amazing at whatever you put your mind to, bub, and Daddy and I will support you in whatever you decided to do. You’re going to have to do a senior service project. Why don’t you think about making this your project?”

Seth nodded and rested his head on her shoulder, and she made a mental note to file away that she needed to take him to the wildlife refuge in Corpus Christi sometime.

Across the aisle, Dean and Tony were having a similarly grown up conversation, about where Dean wanted to take his bucket list trip. He’d been having trouble deciding, which was why they hadn’t actually gone anywhere yet.

“Dad? I know this isn’t a weekend trip or anything like that, but what I really want to do is go to Italy some time and see where Papa Angelo grew up…” Dean’s voice trailed off as he thought about his grandfather, and Lily watched Tony wrap an arm around his shoulder.

“I love that idea, Dean. I think that might make a good family trip, though, don’t you?”

Dean shrugged.

“I guess. Yeah, I guess.”

“What’s something you’d like to do just you and me?”

“I want to go to Normandy to see where D-Day took place.”

Tony seemed surprised at this.

“Really?” Tony asked. “That’s what you want to do?”

“Why not?” Dean wondered.

“Oh, no reason; I think it’s a really good idea. I just figured you’d want to go to Motocross races or something.”

“Oh...nah. I mean, I still love riding my bike but watching the races is getting kind of boring…”

“Know what, buddy?” Tony said, after thinking for a moment.

“What?” Dean answered.

“Fall break. You and I will go to Sicily and scout it out just the two of us, and then maybe spring break we can all go. What do you think about that?”

Dean’s face lit up like a Christmas tree and he flung his arms around his dad.

“I think that’s one of the best ideas ever,” he whispered, and Lily couldn’t help but smile.

Then she heard Roman telling Tony about his intentions of asking Megan out when school started, which segued back to Dean and Kala, how he was going to miss her, and how he would never ever forget her. They were having such grown up conversations and Lily wasn’t sure she liked it.

She didn’t want them to grow up, but growing up they were. Roman began his junior year that August, and Dean and Seth were sophomores. Dean had told his parents that he was thinking about going out for basketball. Even though he’d never played on a team before, he played at the community center every day and the coaches there all felt that he was definitely good enough to at least try out. Lily was thinking about this one Friday night as they piled into the stadium to watch Roman play football.

The other team was also from the Houston area, and they had a reputation for being large and mean, and for playing dirty. At first Lily was only half paying attention until she heard Dean yell,

“Make a call on that!”

She looked up and realized that one of the other team’s players had taken one of Creek Ridge’s players out by the knee. On purpose. Lily cringed, then found Roman.
The sight of him offering a helping hand to his teammate flooded her with relief. But suddenly, a voice inside her told her she needed to pay closer attention to this game.

At halftime, Creek Ridge was down by two touchdowns and they were also down another player, after one of the members of the opposing team kneed one of the Colts in the crotch. The other kid was thrown out of the game, but Lily felt uneasy. She felt Tony pat her shoulder, then watched as he offered the boys some cash to go down and get some junk food from the concession stand. Never one to miss out on nachos, Dean leaped to his feet and headed for the stairs but Seth held back.

“Everything isn’t okay,” he said to his parents.

“What do you mean, bub?” Lily asked.

“I can tell. Something...you’re worried about something.”

Lily sized him up.

“Everything’s fine. I just don’t like the way the other team is playing, baby. That’s all. It’ll be better when the game starts back.”

Seth reluctantly joined Dean in the concession line.

When the game started back up, it seemed to be better. It even looked like Creek Ridge might rally for awhile. They scored another touchdown at the very start of second half. Dean and Seth leaped around waving their signs while Lily and Tony cheered. The team made it through the third quarter unscathed.

As soon as the final quarter began, the two teams got into a battle for the ball. A player from the other team fumbled it, and it pretty much landed in Roman’s hands. He saw his opening and he ran for it, flying down the field and scoring the game-tying touchdown. No one on the field even saw him until it was far too late. Creek Ridge celebrated; the entire Girardi family was screaming, when Lily saw it out of the corner of her eye.

“ROMAN!” She screamed. But her son couldn’t hear her over the noise in the stadium and Lily and Tony could only watch as a massive player barreled straight at their son. Roman’s head was turned to the side and there was just no way he could even see the kid coming, much less get out of the way in time. The boy tackled Roman high around the chest, landing on top of him and with so much force that as Roman’s head bounced off the ground, his helmet went flying off. At that same moment, the other kid’s knee flew up into Roman’s now unprotected skull. Whether that happened due to the force of the impact or on purpose Lily couldn’t say, but she flew to her feet.

Roman wasn’t moving.

Suddenly, Lily stopped thinking and just started to react.

Get to him.

She barely heard Seth’s startled cry of “Mama?”

Get to Roman.

She ran down the stadium steps, taking them two at a time.

Help him.

Then she scaled the railing and within 30 seconds, she was on the field.

Somebody help my baby.

She forced her way through the crowd surrounding her son.

Please.

Lily felt hands restraining her, but she clawed at them, determined to get to Roman’s side, even as she heard quiet voices.

“She’s his mother.”

“Hey, hey. Let her go.”

“She’s a doctor; let her in.”

She dropped to her knees at Roman’s side. His eyes were closed and his body slack. A trainer was at his other side, assessing.

“Ro?” Lily breathed.

Her son didn’t respond. Someone, Lily figured a medic, held his head, immobilizing his spine while another medic gently put a cervical collar around his neck. The trainer carefully opened Roman’s eye, and Lily realized with a pang that his pupil was the size of a dime, and there was a small trickle of blood running out of his ear. She was a doctor; she knew there could be several reasons for that, but only the worst ones found their way into her mind right then.

“Roman,” she said, a little more forcefully.

Still no movement, except...had his face just twitched? It could’ve been her imagination, or perhaps a neurological thing, but she opted to try again anyway.

“Roman. I’m here. Open your eyes.”

Still not much of a reaction, but as she watched out of the corner of her eye the ambulance slowly crossing the field towards them, she swore she heard her baby moan slightly. So she made one more attempt.

“Roman Nicholas. It’s okay. Mama’s right here. Open your eyes, kiddo. Please.”

Another soft moan and then---Roman’s eyes opened. Just tiny slits, and another moan accompanied them. It lasted all of five seconds before he closed them again but---he had done it. He had responded. Relief washed over her as she realized that the paramedics had seen it too. Immediately, one of them began trying to engage him.

“Roman? I see those eyes. Good job. Roman? Open those eyes again. Come on.”

And Roman did, slightly wider this time, before groaning and closing them once more. This was good, Lily knew.

As the medics loaded Roman into the ambulance, Lily turned towards the crowd, scanning for her boys. When her eyes landed on Tony, Dean, and Seth, she threw them a thumbs up---Roman was responsive. She had no idea what would happen next, but he had responded. That was the best possible sign.

Chapter Text

Tony, once again, was thankful for his Fed credentials and an Escalade with flashing lights.

The second the ambulance left the field with Roman and Lily inside, he’d gathered up Dean and Seth and they had raced to the car. Now they all sat silently as Tony drove, maybe faster than he’d ever driven before. The entire scene had been just horrific. When the other player, who was much bigger than Roman anyway---when his knee had driven into the side of Roman’s head---Tony could swear he’d heard the thud. He wanted to scream. Actually, what he REALLY wanted was to grab his gun and go show that asshole EXACTLY whose kid he had just messed with. He wouldn’t ever do that, of course, but oh, damn, how he wanted to.

The silence was broken by Seth.

“But...Dad? Mama gave us thumbs up so...so it can’t be THAT horrible. Right?”

“I don’t know, bub,” he answered. “You’re probably right. We’ll find out soon.”

What Tony didn’t say was that as far as he was concerned, until he knew different, all that thumbs up meant was that Roman was alive.

When they arrived at the Emergency Room Tony guided Seth and Dean to a group of chairs, then went to the desk.

“I’m here for Roman Girardi,” Tony said as nicely as he could under the circumstances. “I’m his father.” The nurse behind the counter was sympathetic.

“Your wife said you’d be here soon,” Morganne said gently. “Come on. I’ll take you to them.”

Tony grabbed some cash out of his wallet and offered it to the boys.

“I’m going to go back with Roman and Mom. You guys go get something to drink okay? And then wait here? I’ll come out as soon as I know what’s going on.”

The boys nodded and headed off for the vending machines. Morganne led Tony through a set of doors and to a section that was curtained off. Morganne peeked around it.

“Dr. Lara? Mr. Girardi is here.” Then Lily came into view and she waved him in. She looked...Tony couldn’t really peg her expression, actually. She looked pretty calm, but as he stepped into the sectional, he could see why.

Roman’s eyes were open slightly and there were already bruises forming down the right side of his face and disappearing into his hairline. His lips were slightly parted, as though he was trying to speak but couldn’t form words. Although there wasn’t blood pouring out of his ear, Tony could clearly see where there had been some, and someone must have cleaned it up a little. Lily was holding his left hand. She was trying to stay in control for his sake.

“He’s about to go up for a CT of his head and an MRI of his neck. He was vomiting in the ambulance on the way here.

Tony wasn’t a doctor by any stretch, but he did know that throwing up with a head injury wasn’t a good thing at all.

“So...that’s not so good, huh?” He tried to keep his voice low and calm, tried not to upset Roman but he was panicking on the inside.

“It...isn’t the best sign ever.” Lily’s voice was equally low and calm, but he could see by her eyes that she was freaking out.

“He was responsive on the way here, though. Not really speaking but following commands. He could move both feet and both hands at will, and THAT is a really good sign. When I first saw him take that hit I was just certain he’d broken his neck. But since he can move his extremities...that’s encouraging.”

Tony took his place on the other side of his son.

“Roman? Hey, buddy,” he said quietly, leaning over so he could see his son’s face. Roman moaned but didn’t speak.

“Can you squeeze my hand, bud?”

And he felt it. The squeeze wasn’t tight or strong but he felt it anyway, and he was reassured a little. So Roman couldn’t talk much, but he could comprehend. And if his neck wasn’t broken---that had to be something. Two doctors appeared in the sectioned off room.

“Dr. Girardi,” one began, then noticed Tony standing there.

“This is Roman’s father,” Lily introduced them. “Tony, this is Dr. Lara. She’s the ER physician on call tonight.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Dr. Lara said. “This is our neurology resident.”

“Roque Gartland,” the man stuck out his hand. “Here’s the plan.” Then he walked over to the bed and leaned over Roman.

“Roman? My name is Dr. Gartland. You doing okay?”

Roman groaned low in his throat, then managed to mutter,

“‘Kay.”

“I’m going to take you upstairs and we’re going to take some pictures of your head and your spine. It’s gonna be super easy; all you have to do is lie still and relax. We’re going to keep you warm and comfy and you don’t even have to move. We’re probably going to take about two hours running tests and one of your parents can stay with you. You’re going to stay at the hospital tonight so we can keep an eye on you and after we get the test results we’ll make a plan. Okay?” Tony immediately liked the way that Dr. Gartland addressed Roman, rather than the other adults in the room.

“Ya,” Roman managed to grunt.

“Okay. The nurses are going to get you ready and we’ll go up in about 5 minutes,” Dr. Gartland turned to Lily and Tony. “One of you can stay with him. Any takers?”

They looked at each other. Neither wanted to be away from their son, but both knew Dean and Seth needed them too.

“Tell you what,” Lily said slowly. “I’m going to get sweetie and bub, take them home, get them in comfy clothes, get some things for Roman, and then bring the boys back up. Maybe I’ll see if we can get a room at the Marriott across the street. Then they’ve got a decent place to sleep and you and I can take turns here. Sound good?”

“Sounds perfect, Mama.”

Lily leaned over Roman.

“Daddy’s going to stay with you, Ro. Okay kiddo? Mama’s going to go home and get you some nice clean clothes and a book and all of that and then I’ll be back. I love you, Roman.”

Roman squeezed on to his mother’s hand for a moment before whimpering.

“It’s gonna be okay, baby,” Lily crooned in his ear. “They’re gonna get you all better. All you have to do is rest. I’ll be here before you know it. Try and relax, baby. Everything’s fine.”

She gave Roman’s hand one more gentle squeeze and left the room.

Tony gazed down at his son.

“I love you, Roman. Hang in there. We’ll fix you up.”

As they walked up to neurology, Dr. Gartland spoke with Tony.

“It’s good that he’s breathing well and his pulse is strong. They tell me he took a pretty hard hit?”

“Yeah...twice. First he got knocked down so hard his helmet flew off, and then he got a knee to the side of the head. We saw the whole thing from the stands. His mama just took off down to the field. And his brothers were just...kind of frozen.”

“That’s scary. We’ll find out for sure soon what his brain looks like, but based on that description, the fact that he’s even moving sounds promising to me.” Dr. Gartland looked at Tony.

“I’m going to take good care of your son, sir. I can promise you that.”

“Thank you. Roman,” Tony leaned over his boy again. “I love you, son. I’m going to be waiting right outside while they take some pictures of your brain.” He
smoothed Roman’s hair back from his forehead. “You’re doing great, buddy. Pretty soon you’ll be all done and then you’re going to feel better.” He gave Roman’s hand a soft squeeze, and could just feel Roman squeeze back, before the doors opened and they wheeled Roman away.

 

__________________________________

 

Dean thought he might be sick.

When he saw Roman take that hit back at the football game, he was seconds away from tearing down to the field himself but then he realized his mother was already halfway there. He’d felt his father’s arm around him, watched as paramedics loaded Roman onto a stretcher and into the ambulance, and seen his mother flash them the high sign. Once the ambulance left, his father had hustled him and Seth down to the Escalade and they’d sped to the hospital.

Now, Dean was in his bedroom trying to get some clothes together but he felt like he was on autopilot. His mom had spent the drive home calling the hotel and getting them a room. Seth had asked why they needed one, when home was just 30 minutes away, but their mother had explained that it was easier to be near Roman. And who knew just exactly how long he’d be at the hospital? Which as far as Dean was concerned, meant she was anticipating bad things happening to Roman, and she wanted to be as close to him as possible.

Dean was terrified.

Shit like this wasn’t supposed to happen to Roman, who was larger than life, talented, and a legit leader on the team. He was good to everyone, and everyone liked him, and as far as big brothers went, could Dean have ever asked for better? Absolutely not. He was supposed to be strong and sturdy. Roman...Roman was supposed to live forever.

Stop it, Dean scolded himself silently. He was giving his brother a death sentence that odds are wasn’t even warranted. Dean finished packing and went looking for Seth.

His little brother wasn’t in his bedroom, so Dean went further down the hall, and there he found Seth sitting on Roman’s bed hugging their older brother’s pillow. Dean couldn’t really read the expression on his face, but he went to sit beside him.

“Hey,” he said quietly. Seth didn’t look up.

“It smells like him,” he whispered into the pillow.

“Seth? It’s okay,” Dean wasn’t sure what was the right thing to say or do, but his brother was clearly terrified.

“Yeah...yeah,” Seth murmured. “It just...from the stands it looked really horrible…”

“I know. But Roman’s---do you know anyone tougher than Roman, Seth?”

Seth looked at him with a hint of adoration.

“Just you,” he whispered.

Dean froze. He’d never realized it before. Oh sure, his mother told him all the time that Seth idolized him because he was older but...he’d always brushed her off. But Seth had more or less just...well, that did it. Dean was a big brother too, dammit, and if his little brother needed comfort, then he was going to give it. Because that’s what Roman would do, and Roman was verifiably the best big brother on the planet. Dean wrapped an arm around Seth’s shoulders.

“Well, tough or not, I’m scared, too,” he whispered to his brother. “But we just...we gotta have faith in Rome right now, you know? He’s never let us down before. And think about it like this. Mama would never have left that hospital if he was in serious danger. Right?”

“That’s true…” Seth’s eyes looked hopeful. Dean patted him on the shoulder.

“Do you have everything you need?”

Seth nodded, then frowned.

“I don’t want to leave his pillow…”

“We can take his pillow. He’d probably like to have his own pillow. You think?”

Seth nodded again.

“Come on.” Dean stood and gently grabbed Seth by the elbow pulling him to his feet as well. “Let’s go let Mom know we’re ready.”

 

_________________________________

 

When they arrived back at the hospital, Roman was already in a room. Tony was at his side, holding his hand. Their mother had checked into the hotel across the street, and Seth might’ve stayed except Dean refused, and no chance was Seth staying there by himself. He was frightened, sad, and completely exhausted, but he went back to the hospital anyway.

Roman was asleep, or maybe unconscious, Seth couldn’t tell, but he really didn’t look any better. He was pale. Bruises darkened on his right cheek, his hair a black halo around his head. It would tangle, Seth thought. Roman hated that. He wanted to tie it into a bun for his brother, but he was afraid to touch him. Luckily it was like their mother read Seth’s mind. She swooped in to Roman and kissed his forehead, murmuring words that Seth couldn’t hear as she did it. Then she pulled the hair tie out of her own hair and gently gathered Roman’s up.

“So...anything?” Lily asked Tony quietly. Dad shook his head.

“He JUST finished his MRI about 10 minutes ago. Dr. Gartland---that’s the neurologist---said it’d probably be an hour or so. They gave him some pain meds though.”

“Oh, baby boy,” Lily murmured softly. “What are we gonna do with you, Ro? C’mere, Sethie.”

Seth scooted closer to his mom, til he realized what she wanted and balked. She gently took his hand anyway.

“It’s okay; you can touch him. It’s good to touch him. It helps him know we’re here.”

“I don’t want to hurt him,” Seth whispered, looking up to notice that Dean was on Tony’s side of Roman’s bed holding their brother’s hand already.

“You won’t hurt him. You don’t have to do this, bub. But you won’t hurt him, baby boy.”

And Seth allowed his mother to gently place his hand over Roman’s chest. It felt funny at first, until she shifted him to the side slightly and then, Seth felt it. Roman’s heartbeat. It felt strong and defiant; as though it was meant just for Seth to feel, and to let him know that Roman was not giving up. Seth hung his head over his brother, and he felt his mama rubbing his back with one hand as she ran her fingers over Roman’s hair with the other.

“His heart feels good,” Seth said, not sure exactly how else to explain it.

“His pulse is very strong,” agreed Tony. “His heart is beating perfectly and his lungs are working perfectly, and those are both amazing, good signs. And Mama said he was able to move his hands and feet earlier.”

“Yeah, he sure did,” Lily said. “He almost kicked the paramedic in the---”

She was interrupted by a nurse at the door, but both Seth and Dean knew what she meant and they both giggled just a little. The nurse smiled as she went around and checked the monitor by Roman’s bed.

“Looks good,” she said, and she smiled kindly at Seth, who didn’t realize he’d been clinging to his mother’s arm. He briefly wondered if there would ever come a time when total strangers didn’t make him want to crawl out of his skin, but the nurse’s smile was so gentle that he managed to relax just a tiny bit. He didn’t move his hand off Roman’s chest, but he let go of Lily. He focused instead on his oldest brother, head nodding a little as he fought off sleep. Seth didn’t realize it when Lily moved him slightly so that he was laying against Roman. He dozed off after a bit.

Chapter Text

Lily stroked Seth’s hair gently as her baby slept. She knew he was tired; it was well past midnight now and he hadn’t slept terribly well the night before. Seth seemed to be going through a rough patch; he’d go a couple of nights unable to fall asleep, then crash and sleep like the dead, then repeat. He didn’t seem to be having nightmares again. He never woke up terror stricken; often, Lily didn’t even know he’d struggled until she’d realize at the breakfast table that he was nodding off into his cereal.
She startled back to reality when she heard Dr. Gartland tap on the door.

“Hey, folks,” he said. “I’ve got Roman’s test results.”

Lily sat up straight, and Tony draped his arm around Dean protectively. As the doctor turned on the lamp on the wall and set up Roman’s spinal scans, she gently rubbed Seth’s back. Seth mumbled but didn’t wake up, so Lily opted to let him continue to sleep on his brother.

“Okay,” Dr. Gartland pointed to the spinal images up on the lamp. Lily was instantly relieved.

“Those look good!”

“There are no fractures of any kind. His neck looks great. Now here,” he pointed to a darkish area, “appears to be some swelling and it looks like he might have a sprain. He’s going to be tender for awhile.”

“But his spinal cord is okay?” Tony wanted to know.

“Yes. There is no significant injury to his spine.”

“Okay...what about his head?” Lily was more worried about that anyway.

A different set of scans appeared on the screen, and this set made Lily gasp. She pointed to an area that kind of looked like a half-circle.

“Is that---?” She trailed off.

“This is the most bizarre simple skull fracture that I’ve ever seen,” said Dr. Gartland.

“Wait---skull fracture? As in broken skull?” Tony sounded upset.

“Yes, but here’s the deal. A skull fracture can be simple, which is basically like a crack. It can be depressed, which means that the bones of the skull are pressing into the brain. Or it could be compound, which would mean the bones have broken the skin. When you first look at this fracture on the right side of Roman’s skull, you’d automatically think it’s depressed because of its shape. But there’s no actual depression; that’s just a very oddly shaped simple fracture.”

Lily’s hands continued to softly graze Seth’s back. She noticed Tony’s arm tighten around Dean. Both of them were wondering what the doctor wasn’t saying.

“By definition, because he lost consciousness, we can classify him as having a grade 3 concussion,” Dr. Garland went on. “We won’t know the severity until he’s awake and we can assess him. My guess is he’s going to be out of it for a few days.”

“Okay, but how do we fix this?” Tony finally asked.

“Unfortunately, there’s not a lot we can do for him except manage his pain and let him rest so he can heal. Eventually the fracture will seal on its own. While it’s healing don’t be surprised if he has cerebrospinal fluid leak from his ears or nose, unless it’s just excessive. Because the fluid can escape, he’s probably going to experience substantial pain for a few days, but like I said, we can manage that. It’s going to be imperative that he not sustain any more blows to the head.”

“What is a concussion?” Dean asked.

Dr. Gartland smiled at him.

“So your brain and spinal cord are surrounded by this stuff called cerebrospinal fluid. Its job is to cushion those things from bumps and bruises, because they’re very fragile. But when you hit your head really hard, the fluid can’t cushion your brain properly, and it kind of bounces around in your skull. So when we say someone has a concussion, it basically means that their brain is confused from the jolt that it took. How confused is determined by how hard the hit was. Since Roman was hit hard enough to actually break his skull, we’re going to assume that right now, his brain is pretty darn confused.”

“And since there’s a crack in his skull, that cere...cerebro...stuff, can get out, so it’s not going to cushion his brain right, and that’s going to hurt?” Dean continued. Dr. Gartland nodded.

“That’s exactly right. Which isn’t going to be a whole lot of fun for Roman, but the good news is, he should make a full recovery. Of course, his football season is over…”

“But...but he loves football,” said Dean softly.

“I bet he does. But it’s really really important that his brain heals completely. If it gets hit again before it does, that’s going to make it worse.” Dr. Gartland patiently explained everything to Dean, who seemed to be absorbing it quietly.

“Then...the only thing to do is keep him calm and take care of him until he’s better,” Dean was resolute.

Dr. Gartland turned to Tony.

“I like this guy,” he said with a grin.

“Yeah...he’s a keeper.” Tony smiled fondly at Dean. At that moment, Roman moaned loudly. Seth startled awake.

“What? Did I hurt him? Mom?” Seth sputtered.

“You didn’t hurt him,” Dr. Gartland said calmly. “I think he’s waking up.”

 

__________________________________

 

Pain seared through Roman. It started in his chest. He could breathe, but inhaling hurt. It spread up through his neck and into his head, which was a pounding, pulsing mess. What had happened? Where was he? Roman couldn’t remember.

Where was his family? Where were Mom and Dad?

He tried to ask, but all that came out of him was a loud moan; his mouth wouldn’t move the way he wanted it to. God, his head hurt. A 10 for sure. He wanted his mother. He wanted his mother to make it go away. And then he heard a soothing voice.

“Ro? Baby, you’re okay. You’re gonna be just fine, kiddo.”

“Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm,” Roman tried to speak, but he knew all that came out was another moan.

“Shhhh…” Dad’s voice. “Relax, buddy. Just relax. It’s okay, Roman.”

Then he heard Dean.

“Rome? We’re all here, Rome. The doctor said you’re gonna be okay.”

Finally Seth.

“Hang in there, Roman.”

“You don’t need to talk,” Mama’s voice again, soft and gentle. God, he wanted her to hold him and make everything else go away.

“Please,” Roman tried to beg, but he just couldn’t form the words.

“Listen, kiddo. You’ve gotta relax,” he could hear Lily whisper softly into his ear. “I know it hurts, baby. They’re going to give you a little medicine to help. I don’t want you to do anything but take slow breaths.”

Roman tried, God knows he did, but the throbbing in his head made him want to scream and cry. He felt both of his hands being squeezed but he couldn’t tell who was holding them. He squeezed desperately back. It hurt. It hurt, it hurt, and then suddenly---he was floating. He felt nothing anymore. No pain, no gentle hands, not his mother’s soft kisses. Roman briefly wondered if he had died, and then blackness enveloped him.

The next time Roman was semi-aware, he could feel a heaviness beside him. He still wasn’t sure where he was, what had happened, or why his head was pulsing, but although the intensity of the throbbing was the same, the actual pain was considerably less. He could also sense that wherever he was, it was dark now. He let out a long sigh. Then he heard a familiar voice.

“Rome?” It was Dean. It was his brother. He tried to move, tried to speak. And this time, he managed to softly utter,

“Dean.”

“Yeah, it’s me.” Roman felt his brother take his hand and hold it.

“Mom and I are here,” he heard Dean say. Mama...Roman suddenly became aware of a soft touch on his face. Had it been there all along? He wasn’t sure, but he was certain that it was indeed his mother.

“Mama…” he managed to mumble softly.

“I’m here, Ro,” confirmation came in the form of a tender voice near his ear. “Dean and I are right here. Daddy and Seth are sleeping but they’ll be back in a bit. Just rest.”

But Roman couldn’t just rest. He wanted to know where he was, what had happened, why his head felt like it was being squeezed by a vice. And why he couldn’t really move, and why his eyes wouldn’t open.

“Mama,” he moaned again.

“It’s okay, kiddo. You’re okay. You’re gonna be just fine, baby.” Her voice soothed him, but he still couldn’t just rest. As time passed, Roman slowly became more aware. He heard a soft beeping. Then he felt a hand on his forehead and heard an unfamiliar female voice, along with his mother’s voice, conversing. But he couldn’t quite make out what they were saying. He tried to ask, but only a whimper came out.

“Shhhhh,” Mom’s voice again, soft and soothing. “Don’t try to talk too much. Everything’s fine, my love.”

“You’re gonna be okay, Rome,” Dean’s voice now. “You’re gonna stay in the hospital for a bit and then you’ll go home and soon you’ll be good as new.”

Hospital? Why? Had he wrecked his Jeep? What the hell had happened?

“Why?” Roman managed to groan. He felt Dean’s grip on his hand tighten.

“You got hurt...playing football,” Dean said softly.

And suddenly it all flooded back. The game. The crowd screaming, the fumble, running like Hell, and then...out of the corner of his eye...oh. Oh God. Roman felt panic rise up in his chest as he remembered. He heard the beeping come faster.

“Hey. Hey.” Mama’s voice. “Easy, Ro. Easy. Breathe, kiddo. Dean’s right. You’ve got some healing to do, kiddo, but you’re going to get better. We’re going to help you.”

Roman went still for a moment, trying to do as his mother said and simply breathe. He felt himself begin to relax, and then he heard a new voice, a man’s voice, a man he didn’t know.

“Roman?” The voice was deep, but it wasn’t his father.

“My name is Dr. Gartland, Roman,” the voice said. “I’ve been taking care of you since you got to the hospital. I want you to try and open your eyes. Just relax and open your eyes for me.”

“You can do it, kiddo,” his mother’s voice softly cajoled. “Come on, Ro. Let me see those pretty grey eyes, baby.”

Roman wanted to do as she said, he really did, but it felt like his eyelashes were super glued together. He groaned a little and tried to focus and then suddenly...there she was. He could see his mother’s face, blurry, but definitely her.

“Hello, there,” she said quietly.

“Mama,” Roman murmured again.

“Hi, baby,” Lily responded. “You’re such a good boy, kiddo. You’re gonna be just fine, my baby. I love you so much, Roman.”

Then Dean came into view. Also blurry, but Roman could still tell he had a grin on his face.

“Hey, Rome,” he said.

And Roman did his best to smile back.

 

_________________________________

 

Dean felt relieved. Roman was sort of awake, sort of talking, and going to be okay. Maybe even better than okay. He and his mother spent the rest of the night watching over him while he slept. The next morning Dad and Seth came up to trade places, so Dean and Mom went down to get some breakfast. Dean stuffed himself with two waffles, a bunch of bacon, and a big bowl of fruit. Lily had coffee and a muffin.

The plan had been to go to the hotel and rest for awhile, but Dean was too pent up to sleep. His mother passed out on the bed almost as soon as they got there, but he was in no mood to do the same, so he fired up his computer. He’d downloaded hundreds of photos from their Hawaii trip, and then he’d added the ones that Roman and Seth took as well. He kind of had an idea that maybe this Christmas, they could make their parents a photo book as a gift. There were a ton to sort through. Then while he was looking at them, he decided he may as well try and play with his photo editing software as well. He knew nothing about any of it, but soon was successfully creating something that maybe resembled art. His favorite so far was a photo he’d taken hanging out of the helicopter (his father had grabbed ahold of the back of his t-shirt) to shoot the lava running down to the ocean. When Dean discovered he could make the entire thing black and white except for the actual lava, he was hooked. He had no idea how long he’d been working on it, and he was startled when he felt a hand on his shoulder.

“What are you doing, sweetie?” His mother’s soft voice came like a song in his ears.

“Just...looking. At all of our vacation photos. I wish we could go back, Mom,” Dean confided.

“I think we will. Probably sooner than you think. Daddy and I both agree that this was one of our best vacations. So much to do. Dean, who took these pictures?”

“Umm...well, I did a lot of them but some of them Roman and Seth took and sent me. Why?”

Lily didn’t say anything for awhile, just kept clicking through images, before she finally looked at him.

“You took these with your phone?” Dean’s mother asked, and he nodded.

“Yeah. I think the volcano ones are my favorites but then the dolphin ones are cool and then…” Dean took over the computer for a minute until he found what he was looking for, “I love this one of you and Dad.”

Lily drew in a sharp breath. It was a picture of her with Tony at the luau. She was looking at him smiling and he was looking back at her with such adoration in his eyes. Dean thought it really showed how much their parents loved each other, and when he looked at his mother’s face right then, he realized she saw it too.

“Dean...some of these are amazing. These are better than a lot of the pictures I took with my $1,000 camera…”

“Really?” Dean blushed and beamed at the same time.

“Really. You have a real aptitude for this, sweetie.”

“It’s fun, Mom.”

“I know; I agree, but this is more than just having fun, baby. I think you have a real eye for photography. Dean?”

“Yeah?”

“If Daddy and I got you a nice camera, would you like to learn how to use it? Maybe take a course? It’s too late for this year at school but the community center offers a photography class and I think there’s a photography class you could take next year as your art elective.”

Dean hadn’t given a single thought to this, but now that his mother mentioned it...it did sound kind of like a fun idea.

“Yeah...yeah, I’d like that,” Dean grinned at his mom.

“Can I upload these to my Mpix account? I’d like to order some for the house,” Lily smiled back at him.

“You would? Really, Mama?” Dean was excited now.

“Of course I would. You did an incredible job of capturing this family's memories, and I need to get some new pictures up, and a few of these are going on the Christmas card for sure.”

Dean figured if his heart got any bigger, it would explode. He always loved his parents praise, but for his mother to say that he was truly talented at something he didn’t even realize he was good at...it felt really good. Together, they kept looking, and then they came to a picture that made his mama squeal.

The photo was of Roman, hair loose around his face. It was close up, but you could see the ocean in the background, and his head was turned to the side in a soft profile. The smile on his face was so relaxed and carefree. Dean could see why his mother loved it.

“Mama?”

“Yeah, sweetie?” Lily breathed.

“Are we ever going to see this side of Rome again?” This gave Lily pause.

“What?”

“What if...Mama, what if he’s not like him anymore?” Dean whispered. Lily sighed and hugged Dean tight.

“Listen, sweetheart,” she said. “You heard doctor Gartland. Head injuries...they take time, you know? And Roman’s recovery...it might not be easy. He’s still not with it enough for us to know what he’s going to need to get there. But he WILL get there; the doctor said so. And you were exactly right when you said that we’re just going to have to keep him quiet and give him what he needs to get better.”

“Yeah...I meant that,” he whispered.

“I know you did, Dean. You’re such a good brother. As long as we don’t give up on him, sweetie. As long as we don’t give up on him, no matter how difficult it gets, he’s going to get there.”

Dean sighed.

“I’m not used to seeing him like that. Not him. He’s never sick, he’s never hurt, he’s always...he’s always Roman.”

“He’s still Roman,” Lily said gently. “He’s just...Roman with an edge right now.”

“Roman with a hole in his head,” Dean muttered.

“Not a hole. A crack,” Lily corrected. “A crack that is going to heal. Slowly, but it’s going to.”

“What can Seth and I do to help him?” Dean wondered.

“You can be patient. You can do your best to understand. Remember how hard it used to be for him after he’d have to visit with Lisa? But you and Seth...you did exactly right. You can do it again, sweets.”

Dean nodded, and for awhile, he and his mom sat together quietly, ordering photo after photo from mpix.com. He noticed that she got the picture of Roman especially big, and he smiled. He wasn’t sure when he dozed off but he woke up with his head in his mother’s lap.

“Ready to go back up?” Lily smiled down into Dean’s eyes. He nodded.

“Yeah.”

“Daddy says Ro slept most of the morning. They’re keeping him pretty well medicated. He’s looking at at least one more night in the hospital.”

“Okay...can we stay here tonight?” Dean asked.

“Yeah. But you’re gonna try and really sleep. Got it?”

“Got it.”

When they crossed the street and went into the hospital, they got off the elevator on Roman’s floor and the first person Dean saw was Roman’s football coach. Ricardo Tarango was young, in his mid-20’s, but ever since taking over Creek Ridge’s football team four years prior, the Colts had pretty much been unstoppable. Behind Coach Tarango was most of the team, taking up almost the entire waiting area.

“Dr. Girardi,” Coach Tarango greeted Lily, and she hugged him. “I hear Roman is going to be okay?”

“It looks like Roman will make a full recovery,” Lily agreed, squeezing Dean’s hand. “He’s got a lot of healing to do.”

“Do you know if he’ll be able to play next year?” Coach asked, and Lily shook her head.

“That’s the hope, but it’s too early to tell.”

“I talked to the team,” Coach told them. “We’ve agreed to dedicate our season to Roman. He’s such a leader; it’s going to be rough without him, but we’re behind his recovery 100%. If there’s anything that you or he needs, please don’t hesitate to ask.”

“Coach?” Dean asked. “Did we win the game?”

Coach Tarango looked at Dean and sighed.

“Lost by a field goal, buddy. Wouldn’t have even come close if it hadn’t been for Roman though.”

Dean nodded, and then Lily and Coach Tarango bid each other goodbye and Lily guided Dean into Roman’s room. Roman had been moved to his left side and had a blanket tucked around him. Seth was curled up against Roman, listening to his iPad. And Tony was tapping away on his laptop. Lily laid her hand on the back of his neck as she entered and Tony looked up at her. Dean thought he looked tired.

“How’s he doing?” Lily asked softly.

“He’s been asleep the whole time you’ve been gone, save for about a 5 minute period where his meds wore off. Seth hugged on him until it kicked in again. Made me proud. Dean? Doing okay?”

Dean yawned, then muttered,

“Yeah. I’m good,” before joining his brothers on the bed. He wanted to be close to Roman right now. He wanted Roman to know that Dean was there for him, always, and that he was going to help him get better, whatever it took.

Chapter Text

Tony was researching brain injuries when Lily and Dean came back. This was a really dumb thing to do, but he did it anyway. It didn’t take long for Dean to fall asleep with his head on Roman’s side, and with Seth miles away in his world of music, Tony could finally speak freely to his wife.

“Lu...listen to this. Headaches, dizziness, anger, depression, exhaustion, disorientation, inability to sleep, nightmares, night terrors---and that’s the best case scenario,” Tony all but whined. This sounded awful.

“Well...worst case scenario is death,” Lily pointed out. “Worse is a vegetative state and bad is paralysis…”

“When you put it that way…” Tony sighed, and Lily reached for his hand.

“I know the next few weeks are gonna suck,” she said quietly. “But we have to do what we can to make it easy on Roman. Dean and Seth too.”

“I know. You’re right. So what’s the attack plan, Mama?”

“Well, I think first we need to figure out our schedules. Has Dr. Gartland been by?”

“Yeah...he tried to talk to Roman but he was just too out of it still. Probably won’t be out of here until Monday, maybe tomorrow night.”

“I don’t want him alone at the house. Not for awhile. In case he falls or hits his head somehow. To be honest, he’ll probably want to spend most of the next two weeks either in bed or on the couch anyway. Moving around too much is just going to hurt.” Lily heaved a huge sigh. “I can’t postpone all those surgeries, T.”

“I’ll work from home,” Tony replied. “I can go up to the office on Fridays since you’re off. Monday and Thursday afternoons if I need to. We’ll make it work. How long do you think he’ll be out of school?”

“I don’t know,” Lily murmured. “I suppose it depends on how quickly he heals. We’ll just have to play that by ear. If we can get through the next few weeks, I can take a leave of absence again….”

“I hate for you to do that,” Tony looked pained.

“That’s the beauty of a private practice though,” Lily said. “I CAN do that. Todd and Rene will cover my follow ups. And you’ve got a seminar at Quantico coming up, and I really don’t want you to back out of that. That’s a huge chunk of money and we’ve suddenly incurred an unexpected expense.”

“We’ve got the money,” Tony muttered, but truthfully, he didn’t want to back out of the seminar either. Dean and Seth would both be expecting and deserving of new cars within the year, and extra money was going into all three boys’ college accounts. He wanted to provide them with the whole world. But more than anything else, he wanted to fix his son. He didn’t realize there were tears in his eyes or that they began to fall until Lily put her computer down and wrapped him in a hug.

“It’s gonna be okay, Daddy,” Lily said quietly. “He’s going to make it through this, and it’s okay for you to be scared sometimes too…”

“I just...shit, Lu,” Tony whispered.

“I know. I know, babe,” she was rubbing his back now. Tony had no idea how Lily was holding it all together, but he was glad she was, because if she started to lose it, he was pretty sure he would completely fall apart.

“Listen, T. Tonight, I want you to take Dean and Seth out for a good meal and swim at the hotel and get a good night’s sleep. I’ll stay with Ro. Okay?”

“Yeah. That sounds good. I just hate leaving you alone…”

“She won’t be,” said a voice from the door. Tony and Lily both looked up in surprise to see Lily’s mother standing there.

“James had to stay in San Antonio, but after you called and told me about Roman’s accident, I thought you may need some help. How are our beautiful babies?”

Tony smiled. He looked down at his three sons, Seth now sound asleep as well, then up at his wife, who was smiling, to his mother-in-law, who selflessly came to help them out. And for the first time, he felt relieved. Maybe Lily was right; maybe everything would work out okay. As they explained to Ailis what they’d already worked out, she smiled.

“Then here is what I will do. I will stay this week, then go home, and then come back when Lily must go back to work and stay a couple more weeks. Perhaps by then, James can shift his schedule and join me.”

The tension in the room, which had been tangible up to that point, began to ebb away.

Later that evening, Tony pried Dean and Seth away from Roman’s side and took them to Hard Rock. After the Cheesecake Factory, it was Dean’s favorite place. They ordered nachos and sodas, and then sat in silence, until finally Tony spoke.

“Hey, buddy, Mom said she thinks we need to buy you a camera,” he said to Dean.

Dean’s face lit up slightly.

“Really? She really wants to?” Dean asked.

“Yeah, she showed me some of the pictures you took in Hawaii while you guys were sleeping. My favorite is the one with just the lava in color. We’re going to hang it in our bedroom, I think. You’re very artistic, bud. It’s a side of you I don’t think we’ve seen yet.”

Dean blushed. Seth grinned.

“Maybe you should get a camera, Dean,” he said. “Then you can take pictures of Sicily when you and Dad go, to show us when you get back.”

Dean stilled a moment, then looked at his Dad.

“So...we’re still doing that?”

“Well yeah. I mean, the tickets are paid for…” Tony was confused. “Don’t you want to go anymore?”

“Oh, I really want to go,” Dean replied. “But Roman…”

“The trip is six weeks away, buddy. Roman will be doing tons better by then. I’m going to work from home for two weeks so I can be with him, and then Mama is taking two weeks off so that she can stay with him while I go teach that seminar in Virginia, and then after that we’ll see. And I know you guys will step up for your brother, and with Nana here to help…we’re gonna make it.”

 

“When can Roman go home?” Seth asked anxiously.

“Mom and I are pushing for tomorrow night,” Tony replied. “We aren’t sure though. Not sure when he can go back to school, or anything like that, but he’ll be comfier at
home and that will help.”

No one spoke for awhile as they ate their nachos in silence, until then Seth spoke up again.

“You know what’s sad, Daddy?”

“What’s that, bub?”

“Roman was supposed to take Megan to Fifth Quarter last night. It was going to be their first date.”

Fifth Quarter was a weekly dance that Creek Ridge High School hosted after every home game. They offered free non-alcoholic drinks and snacks, popular music, and a huge dance floor. It was a way for the students to be able to celebrate and have fun without any alcohol or drinking and driving involved. Roman usually went; as a member of the team it was pretty much expected, but he’d never taken a date before. Tony sighed.

“I know. But there’ll be plenty of dances for him, and I have a feeling this isn’t going to change the way he or Megan feels. I suspect there’ll still be a first date in the near future.”

“But Dad? What if Roman has to relearn like, how to walk and eat and stuff?” Seth continued to wonder.

“Buddy, for now, we’re not worried about that. Dr. Gartland says the most important thing is going to be to prevent him from hitting his head again, and to manage his pain. Right now he’s just...kind of got to sleep it off, but he should perk up. I don’t think walking and talking is going to be a huge problem once he gets past this part.”

“He’s like Rip Van Winkle,” Dean observed. “Or Sleeping Beauty.”

Tony laughed at this.

“I don’t think we probably ought to call him Sleeping Beauty. At least not in front of him,” he said, with a wink at his two youngest.

 

________________________________

 

Meanwhile, Lily and Nana sat on either side of Roman, who slept peacefully until his meds wore off, and then he’d cried from the pain. That was awful. Roman rarely cried, especially the older he got, but he’d seemed extremely disoriented as he wailed that it hurt. Lily cradled him on her lap while Nana found a nurse, who swiftly administered a new round of painkillers, and it hadn’t taken long for Roman to fall back into blissful sleep. Until then, though, nothing Lily did soothed him, and once he was asleep again, it was quite awhile before she was willing to let go of him.

It was 7:15 when Lily got a text from Julie Laird.

Megan was wondering how Roman is feeling, and whether he’s up for a visitor?

Lily considered this.

Truthfully, she didn’t think Roman would mind. And it’d probably be a couple of hours before he needed more pain meds. She just didn’t want Megan to come up expecting...well, honestly, Lily wasn’t quite sure what. She settled for full disclosure.

You and Meg are welcome to come on up. Roman’s mostly just been sleeping, so he’s not going to make great company or anything but I think he’d like it if she was here.
A few moments later, Julie responded:

Great. We’ll be there in 20.

She’d gotten up then, figuring that while her son probably wouldn’t mind Megan visiting, she didn’t think he’d really appreciate her being allowed to see him snuggling with his Mommy.

When Julie and Megan arrived, Lily looked her over. Megan’s dark hair hung limply past her shoulders and she had bags under her eyes. She looked tired but more than that, she looked...worried.

My God, Lily thought. She really does care about him.

Lily relinquished her chair so that Megan could sit beside Roman’s bed, and she didn’t need to be told that she could take his hand. As they sat there in silence, Julie motioned Lily to come out to the hall.

“She’s been pretty much inconsolable since it happened,” Julie confided. “She’s really worried about him.”

“Aww, sweet girl...the neurologist is really encouraged, though. Said he pretty much just needs to sleep it off to start.”

Julie nodded.

“Megan made him some chicken soup today. She wanted to do something for him and I didn’t have the heart to tell her that he really isn’t chicken soup kind of sick.”

“Eh. He’ll love it. That was sweet of her. I just feel bad that their first date got messed up.”

“I know,” Julie agreed.

“Maybe...maybe this coming Friday you could bring Megan out to the house and we could hold like a mock Fifth Quarter. I don’t reckon Roman will be up for much dancing, but we could make punch and snacks and play music and all of that. Invite Roman’s brothers and Megan’s sister, and maybe just a few others. We’d have to keep it small, of course…”

“That’s an awesome idea!” Julie exclaimed. “I’ll help. We can decorate and that’ll be so fun for the kids. I shouldn’t tell you this, but...Megan has the biggest crush on Roman. She’s completely smitten.”

Lily laughed.

“Well, since we’re disclosing our children’s deepest feelings, Roman’s been wanting to ask Megan out since July.” Julie smiled too.

“He seems like such a good kid. All three of your boys do. Meg says Dean and Seth have never been anything but polite to her either.”

“Yeah...Tony and I are blessed beyond measure,” Lily smiled fondly.

Just then, Megan appeared in the doorway of Roman’s room.

“Dr. G? Roman’s awake. He wants you…”

Chapter Text

Roman woke up stiff and thirsty, and the room was too bright, and he was startled, though not unpleasantly, to see Megan sitting beside him. A million thoughts seemed to flow through his head, but he was too sore and woozy to sort them out, so instead he just forced out,

“Mom…”

“She’s here. I’ll get her,” Megan squeezed his hand, then stood and a moment later, Lily was at his side.

“Hey, kiddo,” she cooed.

“Need water,” Roman groaned, his voice sounding unfamiliar even to his own ears.

Nana passed Lily a cup, and she slipped the straw between Roman’s lips. The water was cold and refreshing, and he drank until it was gone. It made him feel a little better, but oh, how his body ached. His head was beginning to throb again. He wanted to ask if they would dim the lights, but he couldn’t figure out how to make his mouth form the sentence.

“Mama,” he managed to groan again, squeezing his eyes shut tight. It was Megan who got it.

“Roman?” Her voice was uncertain. “Do you want the lights off?”

“Please,” he grunted out, happy that he was finally able to say something the way he wanted it.

“Oh, good call, Megan,” Roman heard Lily say, and the next thing he knew, there was darkness surrounding him. Immediately, the pressure in his head lessened and the throbbing slowed, and suddenly, he found he could think just a little more clearly.

“Better?” Lily asked quietly.

“Yeah,” he whispered.

“Can you show me your eyes?”

Slowly, Roman complied, squinting, then opening them all the way. His mom had rested her elbows on his bed, arms crossed, and was staring at him, just a few inches from his face. He smiled when he saw her, and she leaned in to kiss his nose.

“I love you,” she said to him softly. Roman paused, pieced together what he wanted to say, and then whispered back,

“Love you, Mama.”

“Roman? Mom and I are gonna go. Can I come see you tomorrow?” Megan was at his side. He reached for her hand, and she gave it a squeeze.

“Yes please,” he said. “Thank you. You came. Thank you.”

Megan’s smile was soft and genuine.

“Don’t think you’re getting out of our date that easy,” she gently teased him. “You get some time to rest but once you’re feeling better I’m holding you to it. Got it?”

Roman smiled.

“Got it,” he whispered.

That night he dreamed about Megan.

 

________________________________________

 

Lily dozed off and on that night, until Roman woke up sobbing hysterically at 3 in the morning. Lily was perplexed. She knew that mood swings and depression were just part of having a head injury, but he’d been sleeping so well. After checking to make sure nothing was hurting him excessively (it wasn’t) and that he hadn’t had a bad dream (not that he could remember), Lily decided that the only thing to do was hold her baby. So she did; she crawled into Roman’s bed and wrapped him in her warmth.

“What’s wrong?” Lily soothed softly, rubbing her hand over Roman’s hair.

“I-I-I don-don’t know,” Roman hiccupped and gasped, sobs wracking his body.

“I j-jus-jus-just can’t st-stop cr-cr-cr-crying.”

“Okay...shh. Mama’s here. I’ve got you, kiddo. Shhhhh,” Lily murmured. It really didn’t seem to help, though.

“What’s wrong with me?” Roman moaned into her shoulder. Lily continued to hold her child, planting tender kisses on his forehead and stroking his hair.

“This is to be expected,” Lily murmured softly. “Remember, it’s going to take a little while before you really feel like yourself. In the meantime, you’re safe in my arms, Roman. I’m not going to let you go. Not until you’re ready. It’s okay.”

Before long, Roman slept again, but true to her word, she didn’t let go of him. On occasion, she’d get up to use the restroom, but other than that, she held her son all night.

 

______________________________________

 

On Sunday evening, Roman went home, much to the delight of Dean and Seth, who begged to be allowed to stay home from school on Monday so that they could help care for Roman. Their parents agreed, so on Monday, the three boys spent most of the day piled into their oldest brother’s bed watching ridiculous movies on Netflix. It wasn’t the same, Seth thought. Roman slept off and on the entire day, and didn’t really participate in their conversation. But that was okay. Everybody said that he’d need lots of rest, and rest is exactly what he did.

Their parents insisted they go to school on Tuesday, so they reluctantly got into the Highlander with Lily and she drove them on her way to work, or rather, Dean practiced driving. Seth thought he mostly did a really good job, as long as he remembered the speed limit. While he was driving, their mother broached the subject of cameras.

“So since Nana is here too, she’s going to shop for groceries. What do you say after I pick you guys up, we go to Target and look at cameras?”

“Okay!” Dean, clearly happy, kept his eyes on the road but Seth could see him grin from ear to ear.

“Mama, what’s for dinner tonight?” Seth asked.

“I think Nana is going to make shrimp creole,” Lily replied, “and then whatever I can get Ro to eat.”

“But he likes shrimp creole…” Seth was confused now.

“I know, but his head hurting has kind of upset his stomach, so I’m not sure he’ll want to eat anything spicy. Okay, guys, I love you. Have a good day and don’t forget to get your missed work from yesterday.”

Dean and Seth kissed their mother and got out of the car and went into the building.

Within 30 seconds, four people that Seth didn’t even know stopped him to ask how Roman was doing.

Now, their school wasn’t really that big. A private school, the elementary classes were restricted to 15 students per class, and there were slightly more permitted in highschool due to the variety of classes offered, but one of the biggest boasts Creek Ridge offered was a low student to teacher ratio. Roman’s graduating class had just 70 students; Seth and Dean’s was projected to have 80. Seth was quiet, kept to himself, and didn’t trust easily, though he got along with everyone. Even so, he wasn’t the picture of popularity, and he wasn’t sure how he felt about all of this newfound attention. He told everyone that Roman was resting at home, but by lunch, he kind of felt like it would be easier just to wear that on a sign around his neck.

It was overwhelming, and by the end of the day, Seth had never been more relieved to see the community center bus. Dean was late, and when he got on, his face was flushed and he was grumbling something about grouchy lit teachers. Seth started to ask what was wrong, but the look on Dean’s face made him think better of it. Originally, they’d planned to play basketball today; tryouts were in just a couple of weeks and Dean seemed serious about it, but upon their arrival at the center, Dean opted to go into the art room instead.

“Got a headache,” he muttered. “Don’t feel like running…”

Seth had no interest in the art room, so he went on to the basketball courts, where he was immediately inundated once again with requests for updates on Roman’s condition.

It seemed he was going to get no peace today, so he resigned himself to simply answering their questions to the best of his ability. At least people cared, right?

When Lily arrived to pick them up, Seth had never been more happy to see her.

“Where’s your brother?” Their mother seemed surprised to only find Seth at the basketball court.

“He didn’t want to play,” Seth explained. “He said he was going to hang out in the art room.”

“Ahh. Will you go get him? I’m going to get some information on the photography class they offer. Is there anything you’re interested in trying after school, bub?”

“Umm...I don’t know. Is there a catalog or something that we could look at?”

“I’ll find out. Go get Dean, baby. There’s a Sonic drink out there with my name on it.” Seth smiled at this. He’d really missed his mother today; he found that every so often he’d just wish he could be home with her, even though now, he was so much better that he was able to cope anyway.

“Dean?” Seth found his brother sitting on a big plushy chair, a drawing pad on his lap, and an arm draped over his face. “Dean? Are you awake?”

“Barely…” came the mottled reply.

“Well, Mom is here, so...hey. What did you draw?” Seth was incredulous.

It was Dean’s rendition of the photo of Roman he’d taken in Hawaii. Seth was amazed, first at the sheer wonderfulness of it, and second that his brother could draw something so detailed from memory; the photo wasn’t in front of him.

“Man, Dean, this is really incredible. Mom’s going to want to see this,” it was then that Seth noticed that Dean’s face was still flushed, his eyes were puffy and dull, and his neck looked swollen.

“Hey...you don’t look so good…”

“I don’t feel so good.” Dean sat up slowly.

“C’mon. Let’s go find Mama. She’ll make it better.”

Seth and Dean approached Lily, who took one look at her middle child and immediately reached out to lay a hand on his forehead. Seth wondered if that was a universal mom thing. Nana did it too, to both her grandchildren AND her children. Lily felt Dean’s face for a moment, then pulled him into her arms. Dean did not resist, which was unusual in public.

“Dean, baby, you’re absolutely roasting. When did you start to not feel good?” Lily ran her fingers through Dean’s hair.

“Umm...kinda last night. Didn’t sleep too good,” Dean was still just leaning on their mother, which to Seth was an indicator that he really must feel lousy.

“Why on Earth didn’t you say anything, sweetie? Oh, my poor baby. Oh, you should’ve been in bed all day, Dean.” Lily drew back and held Dean at arm’s length. Seth was surprised to see tears spring to his brother’s eyes.

“I know but Roman...I need to stay away from Roman.”

Lily hugged Dean again, then wrapped an arm around each of her sons.

“Are you three ever going to understand that you are not responsible for taking care of each other? Come on. You’re going to the doctor right now.”

She led them out to the Highlander, indicating that Seth should sit up front.

“Come on. You can lay on the back seat. I think we’re going to have to run to Urgent Care.” Lily sighed.

Seth watched out the window as the city went by while their mom drove, then he turned to her.

“Mama?”

“Yes, bub?”

“How is Roman today?” Seth had been wondering all afternoon.

“Cranky, according to Daddy. Nana says he’s been an angel all day. So good luck figuring that out. Sethie, will you please text Dad and tell him we’re taking Dean to the doctor, and have him check Roman’s temperature if he would?”

Seth nodded and did as he was asked, and was happy when a few moments later he received a response.

Jeez, first Roman, now Dean. Don’t be surprised if Mama wants to wrap you in a bubble, buddy. Roman’s temp is completely normal.

“Daddy says Roman’s temperature is fine and you’re probably going to wrap me in bubble wrap,” Seth relayed to his mother with a laugh.

Lily smiled too.

“Well...I don’t know about bubble wrap, but it sure would be nice to have my boys all healthy again. How about you, bub? You still doing okay?”

Seth nodded. He really wanted to talk to his mother about how his day had gone and let her calm his nerves, but now clearly wasn’t the time. So instead he looked back at Dean, who by this point was shivering violently. His eyes were closed and some of his honey-blond curls were hanging in his face.

“What do you think is wrong with Dean, Mama?” Seth questioned.

“I don’t know, baby. My guess is strep. That always seems to be going around. Did he mention anything hurting to you?”

Seth sighed.

“No,” he murmured. He didn’t miss his mother’s glance in his direction, but he didn’t say anything else.

The Urgent Care office wasn’t too busy, so Dean and Seth sat and waited while their mom filled out papers. Dean continued to shiver. Seth wished he had a hoodie or something to offer his brother but it was Houston in late August, and both were wearing shorts and polo shirts. When Lily returned she sat down between them and let Dean lay his head on her lap. They only waited about five minutes before a nurse called them back.

An hour later they were on their way home. Dean did, in fact, have strep, which according to the doctor was highly contagious right now, so he wasn’t to go back to school until Friday at the earliest. He got a steroid shot and a Z-pack, and instructions to get lots of rest. On the way home, Lily looked at Seth and smiled.

“I’d say that tomorrow Daddy and Nana are going to have their hands full...how about tomorrow night I pick you up and you and I go on a date?”

“A date?”

“Yeah. Mom and bub date. We can go out to dinner just us two. You pick the restaurant.”

Seth beamed; that sounded like a great idea to him.

Chapter Text

Tony was, in a word, tired.

By lunch time on Wednesday, he was beyond ready for Thursday, when Lily would only work half a day and then be home for the weekend. His oldest two boys were wearing him out.

Not that he wouldn’t have done absolutely anything for either one of them; let there be no doubt about that. And it DID help to have Ailis there. But Lily had always been the primary caregiver, and she’d always been there when the kids were sick. Tony was pretty much clueless, and it showed. How was he supposed to know that Dean liked a cold washcloth on the back of his neck when he had a fever, or that Roman turned into the pickiest eater of all time when he didn’t feel well? The kid loved sushi, for God’s sake. Was offering him pizza really so wrong?

Then there was the clingy issue. They were BOTH as clingy as sloths when they were sick. Dean was content to let his Nana love on him and coddle him, keep him tucked in and warm, feed him homemade soup, and sing to him til he slept. Roman was not. Roman only wanted Tony. Actually, what Roman really wanted was his mother, but since she wasn’t around, he settled for Tony. And he couldn’t just sit next to his son, either. Roman had to lay on top of him. It made him feel bad; he knew his son couldn’t help it, and as his head healed, it would get better. But Roman was experiencing intense mood swings, and Tony learned immediately that the easiest thing was to just let him sleep on him whenever he wanted to, because it kept him quiet. So much for working from home.

So yes, by noon on Wednesday, he was ready for the next day so he could hand them off to Lily and it could be her turn, which he knew was really unfair because in the first place, she took care of them all the time and in the second place, she stayed up with them all night Tuesday night so that he could get some sleep and have a break, and then she went to work without complaining, while here Tony was feeling sorry for himself. He almost would have felt bad---until the school called.

“Seth has a temperature of 103.4,” the nurse said. “We’ll keep him here in the office until you can pick him up.”

Well shit. Now what? How did Lily DO this?

Going to get Seth himself wasn’t going to work unless he could figure out a way to carry Roman on his back, and sending Ailis for Seth wouldn’t be easy either since she wasn’t familiar with the area at all, but Lily going to get him was completely off the table, so finally, he decided the best option was to wake the beast.

“Roman?” Tony murmured as softly and gently as he could, rubbing his fingers down the back of his son’s neck the way he knew their mother did sometimes.

“Buddy, we have to go get Seth. You can come with me, or you can stay here and sleep…”

Roman groaned.

“Dad...where’s Mama?”

“Still at work, buddy. But Seth has a high fever and we’ve got to pick him up. You can stay or come; it’s your choice, but I have to go get him, son.”

“Send Nana,” Roman’s voice had a definite whine to it.

“It’ll be faster if I do it; Seth needs to get to a doctor and Nana doesn’t know where to go. What do you want to do, bud?”

And Roman curled up into a small ball of misery and said nothing else. Tony sighed.

No, he had absolutely no idea how their mother did it, but he was sure going to figure out a way to express his gratitude.

When he arrived at Creek Ridge, Tony could see immediately that Seth felt horrible; it must’ve hit him fast and hard, because he’d looked just fine when he and Lily left that morning. His eyes were glassy, his skin was clammy, his face was flushed, and he violently shook.

“What hurts, bud?” Tony asked him on the way to the doctor; it was earlier than Dean had gotten sick yesterday, and Dr. Enderle was going to work Seth in. This was a blessing, because Seth wouldn’t care for a stranger looking him over. Seth just shook his head.

“My head is pounding…” he whispered. Tony knew that was probably the fever.

“Your throat is okay?” Tony patted his arm. Seth nodded and closed his eyes.

Once they arrived at the doctor's office, Tony signed Seth in and then they sat next to each other. While they waited, Seth laid his head on Tony and didn’t move. Tony threw Ailis a text.

Everyone doing okay at the fort?

A few moments later, she responded.

Dean is sleeping like an angel, and Roman is resting on the couch. There’s a movie on, but he’s listening more than watching. Everyone is good. Take care of the sweet little one.

Again, Tony wondered how Lily did it. More than once, the boys had all gotten sick at the same time, or within a day of each other, and Lily had to get them to doctors and all of that on her own. His reverence for her grew even more when, a moment later, Seth moaned,

“Daddy, I need a trash can.”

Tony barely got one in front of him before he threw up. That sure got things moving faster, and they were called back into a room in less than 60 seconds. Dr. Enderle came in shortly after.

“You threw up a lot of mucous, Seth. Have you been stuffed up lately?”

Seth shook his head no. Tony didn’t recall him seeming stuffy lately.

“He’s got a high fever and he said his head hurts. He said his throat feels fine, he’s not coughing really, and he hadn’t complained of a stomachache before he got sick…”

Dr. Enderle felt Seth’s glands and listened to his chest.

“Where does your head hurt?”

Seth pointed to his temples, then to his face.

“Ahh…” Dr. Enderle looked up Seth’s nose and then in his ears, and then looked over at Tony.

“Sinus infection. His sinuses are really red and inflamed. You feeling a lot of pressure, Seth?”

Seth nodded.

“Yeah. Sometimes that crud builds up in there and it can’t get out so it becomes infected and spreads to other areas. Your ears don’t look too hot either. I think we need a shot of steroid and some antibiotics, lots of clear fluids, and get him some nasal saline. That’ll help get the nasty gunk out.” Dr. Enderle wrote some things down and excused himself. A nurse came in a few moments later and administered the shot.

“Seth, you’re not contagious or anything like,” she said, “but the doctor doesn’t want you back in school the rest of this week so you can rest and feel better. Think you can handle that?”

Seth nodded. Tony groaned. Three boys, three different maladies, three different sets of needs---how in GOD’S name did their mother do it?

 

________________________________

 

Lily was sitting at her desk reviewing her patient load for the next morning when her nurse, Cici, knocked on the door.

“Dr. G? Tony called while you were in surgery. Marilyn asked me to give you this note.” Marilyn was one of the receptionists at the surgical center where Lily worked. The majority of the surgeries Lily performed took place there, though she did occasionally get contracted to one of the local hospitals.

“Thanks, Cici,” she murmured, as Cici handed her the yellow piece of paper.

“Looks like Tony is having a time with those boys,” Cici winked as Lily read the note.

SOS: Three boys down. Mayday, mayday!

“The Hell?” Lily muttered, and Cici laughed. “When I took Seth to school this morning he was perfectly fine…”

“Maybe he caught the sympathy flu,” Cici said.

“Maybe…” Lily was already dialing Tony’s cell. They went back and forth for a few minutes before she hung up.

“Well, now my baby’s got a sinus infection. On top of Dean’s strep, on top of Roman’s skull fracture. It’s a good thing my mother is there or I don’t think Tony would’ve made it.”

“Mr. Mom isn’t really his thing, huh?” Cici asked.

“Tony...Tony is a wonderful, amazing father,” Lily began, “and he loves those boys more than life itself. But he gets frustrated when he can’t fix things, and I know my boys. If I don’t miss my guess, they’re cranky and clingy and what they really want is me. So he’s probably about going nuts right now.”

“Aww...they’re such good boys, though,” Cici said. “I hate that they’re all sick. Tell Dean that I have a new card trick when he’s up for it.”

“I will. I’d better go rescue my husband,” Lily replied. Cici laughed again.

“Eh. You know, especially when you feel crappy, sometimes you just need Mama,” she said.

Cici really nailed that on the head.

The second Lily walked through the door, Roman draped himself onto her and wouldn’t let go. It might have been funny, except that it was so totally out of character for Roman, and plus, he now was a good five inches taller than his mother and weighed about 60 pounds more. Plus, he seemed disoriented.

“Hey. Hey, you’re okay, kiddo,” she murmured calmly. “Let’s go sit down. I’ve got you. Where’s Daddy?”

“Dunno,” Roman mumbled into her neck, not quite willing to move.

“Ro. I mean it. Let’s walk to the living room. What about Nana?”

“Dunno,” Roman mumbled again, but he allowed his mother to lead him to the sofa and when she sat down, he curled up on top of her.

“Roman,” Lily began, trying to shift his weight.

“Don’t let go,” Roman whimpered. Lily sighed. It was going to be a long night.

She managed to coax her son onto the sofa next to her, and then she cradled his upper body in her arms and talked to him softly.

“Rough day, kiddo?” Lily soothed, brushing Roman’s hair back off of his face. He nodded.

“I hate this, Mom,” he whispered. “I hate the way this makes me feel.”

“How DO you feel?” Lily asked him quietly.

“It’s like...the stupidest stuff upsets me. I don’t mean to act like a brat, but suddenly I can’t make myself stop. The only way to make it quit is to sleep. But I can only sleep so much. I’m always either angry or sad or frustrated...and it’s all dumb stuff. I want to be me again, Mama,” Roman’s eyes filled with tears.

“See? This is what I mean! I don’t even WANT to cry right now but I can’t make it stop…”

Lily snuggled him closer to her.

“Listen. I can see where this would be frustrating, but it’s temporary. And I know that doesn’t necessarily help right now, but it is, Ro. It’s temporary. And it’s okay. Daddy and I understand. Your brain is injured, baby. It’s like if you broke your leg. What would you do?”

“I guess…” Roman thought for a minute. “I guess I’d get a cast put on and not use it until it healed.”

“Exactly. Except you can’t not use your brain, so it can’t heal as quickly. It takes time, baby boy. Time and patience. And I know patience is a tough virtue for a 16 year old boy to posess. You can do it though. Wanna ask Megan over tomorrow after school?”

Roman nodded, then paused.

“Can she be around Dean and Seth?”

“You know, I wouldn’t encourage her to like kiss Dean on the lips or anything, but I think it’ll probably be okay. He’s been on antibiotics now for 24 hours and that dramatically decreases the likelihood that he’ll pass it on. Seth isn’t contagious anyway and by then he’ll have been on his meds for 24 hours too.”

Roman smiled then, a smile Lily hadn’t seen in awhile.

“Here. I want you to rest and I’ll get you your phone, and you text her and see what she says. I’m going to check on your brothers, and then I’ll come back and we can discuss. You hungry?”

“Yeah...I am…”

“Anything sound good?”

“Nana made an enormous pot of chicken soup today.”

“Okay. How about some toast and fruit with that?”

Roman hesitated, then nodded. Lily kissed his forehead, handed him his phone, and then got up to go check on Dean.

Nana was in his room tucking his blankets around him when Lily went in, and he appeared to be asleep. She rubbed her hand over his spine, but he didn’t stir. Lily smiled at her mother.

“Thank you for being here,” she murmured. Ailis smiled.

“You are welcome. This one has been so good, Lily. He’s slept and drank a lot of Gatorade, and now he’s been napping for about an hour or so.”

“Has he eaten?” Lily asked.

“His throat is very sore today. He had a little soup earlier. He tried to eat toast but that was too scratchy. We’ve mainly focused on fluids.”

“Good. We’ll let him sleep and then see if he wants more soup later on.”

Finally, Lily moved on to her baby’s room. Seth was curled in a ball on his bed, and Tony was stretched out behind him, reading aloud from one of his books.

“Mama,” he whimpered when he saw her.

“Hi, bub. You too, huh?” She pulled Seth into her arms and rocked him just a little.

“My poor sick babies,” she murmured. “It’s all going to be okay now. Do you want some soup, Seth? Roman’s going to have some.”

Seth nodded, and Lily laid him back in his bed and covered him up.

“You keep reading with Daddy, sweet boy, and I’m going to fix supper. I’ll let you know when it’s ready.”

Lily fixed their dinner. Two bowls of soup, two plates of toast, some cut up strawberries and pineapple. Poor Seth was still fighting the chills, and he had a hard time getting his spoon into his mouth at first. Roman ate quietly. Then out of the blue, he said,

“Megan said she’ll come out tomorrow, Mom.”

“Yeah? Good. Do you want me to get anything special at the grocery store to drink or snack on or whatever?” Lily asked him. Roman blushed. Seth, who’d finally gotten his spoon to cooperate, started teasing.

“Ooooh, Robad’s got a girlfred!”

Lily looked at Seth.

“Quiet, you. Ignore him, Ro, and tell me. I can run by Target on the way home tomorrow.”

“I want to make more soup,” Nana interjected. “I’d be happy to pick up anything you would like, mo chroi.”

Seeing Roman blush a little made Lily smile to herself.

“Would you maybe get some more fresh fruit? And can we make that fruit dip, you know the one with the marshmallow mixed with cream cheese? Please?”

“Cad I hab sobe too?” Seth’s voice came out of nowhere. He was so congested all of a sudden; Lily hoped that meant his gunked up sinuses were starting to drain.

“Of course,” she replied. “In your own room, so Roman and Megan can have some privacy in the living room. And now, you need to go start a really hot shower and breathe some steam, bub. You sound horrid.”

Seth nodded and moved to get up, then rounded the table and hugged his mother.

“Baba? I love Daddy, but I’b glad you’re hobe,” he said, before leaving the kitchen.

“I’m glad you’re home too,” Tony said with a laugh. “They gave me a run for my money today.”

“That’s our job, Dad,” said Roman, and Lily and Tony both chuckled.

“That’s right; at least your two weeks at home aren’t going to be boring,” Lily murmured. “Feel okay, Ro?”

“Right now I do,” he replied, though they both knew that was apt to change at any moment.

“Why don’t you go shower in our bathroom, kiddo. I’m going to peek in on Dean.”

Chapter Text

Dean’s throat hurt so bad that tears stung his eyes. Breathing was difficult, eating was out of the question, and even simply swallowing normally brought about miserable pain. So he was grateful when his mother appeared at his side. He was even more grateful when all he had to do was let out a quiet whimper and his mom seemed to understand.

“It’s okay, sweetie,” Dean felt his mom’s hand run down his back and he relaxed against her touch.

“Let’s go out to the kitchen, okay? I’m going to warm you up some honey and lemon, and Nana has something she thinks might help.”

She helped him up and to the kitchen. Nana applied warm eucalyptus oil to his throat area, and then wrapped it in a warm towel. Meanwhile, Mama began to rub his back again.

“Think you can try and eat?” Lily murmured. Dean shook his head; the thought alone was awful.

“How about to drink? We’ve got lots of Gatorade…” Dean shook his head again.

“A popsicle?” That didn’t really sound better, and Dean continued to silently decline.

“Maybe something warmer? Tea?” Dean still declined. Nothing sounded good or soothing, not even plain water. Then he heard the blender.

He looked up to his mama throwing kiwis, strawberries, blueberries, and some pineapple in the blender with yogurt. Ahhhh….a smoothie. A smoothie sounded
amazing. He wasn’t sure if it was the liquid Tylenol his mother made him drink, the eucalyptus oil, or some combination of the two, but the pain was beginning to lessen.

“Dean, have you eaten anything today?” Lily was pouring the smoothie into a cup, and Dean shook his head, then nodded, then shrugged.

Nana took pity on him.

“He tried some soup earlier but only managed to drink some broth.”

Mom placed the cup in front of him on the table and he took a sip. It tasted amazing and his stomach rumbled; he did feel hungry, but swallowing hurt so bad. While he drank, his mother resumed rubbing his back.

“Good boy,” she murmured as Dean sipped. “Can’t have you getting dehydrated, sweetie. Drink that all down.”

And Dean did, and he found that with something in his stomach, he felt a tiny bit better.

A shower did wonders for him too. The warm water loosened his aching muscles and the steam calmed his throat. As he washed his hair, Dean thought back to a time when he’d been sick as a younger child. Shelby had tossed him on the couch with a blanket and told him to sleep it off. There’d been no love, no comfort, no gentle snuggles wrapped in a warm blanket, and certainly no homemade smoothies. The thought actually made Dean smile a little, remembering where he’d come from and how far he’d gone since then. Even though he was sick right now, his life was damn good, and he was so happy that sometimes it didn’t even seem real.

When he was finished, he joined his family feeling half human again. Roman was laying across their Dad’s lap and Seth was curled up against Nana, her fingers softly stroking his curls. That left a space with Mama in the recliner, which Dean happily took, and together they watched Jurassic Park. His mother’s arms were warm, and she pulled a blanket over them. Dean was comfy, cozy, safe, and happy. Even as miserable as he felt, he was still wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else right then.

 

________________________________

 

Seth hated being stuffed up. If he laid down, he couldn’t breathe. If he sat up, his head began to pound. Mouth breathing dried his tongue and lips up. And it made him talk funny. Luckily nobody seemed to mind.

After Jurassic Park ended, he’d found himself tucked into bed. He snuggled up under his blankets and tried to watch another movie on his iPad until he fell asleep, but sleep just wouldn’t come. This was not fun at all; he wondered how Dean and Roman were faring, and he considered going to see if he could sleep with one of them, but he just didn’t feel like moving. It wasn’t long before the chills came back. He looked at his clock; it was 10:45. His parents were probably in bed. Seth thought about going to them and crawling into his mom’s arms, but he wasn’t a baby. And if he wanted his parents to treat him more like a grown up, he needed to act more like one, right?

He was miserable, though.

Then he heard his father’s voice.

“You awake, bub?”

“Yeah.”

“Can I turn on the light?”

“Okay.”

Tony came into Seth’s room with a small medicine cup in hand.

“Sit up, buddy. I want you to drink this okay?”

“What is it?” Seth asked, too ill to be suspicious.

“Nyquil. It’ll help you sleep, bud.”

“Okay.”

It tasted terrible, but Seth didn’t really care at that point. Jeez. He’d felt a bit better earlier, after a shower and some food, and then relaxing on the couch with his family. But it had all come back with a vengeance. He was barely aware of his mother entering the room until he felt a cool hand on his forehead.

“Fever’s back, huh?” Seth heard her voice.

“Yeah, he’s shaking again. Want me to get the thermometer?”

“Sure. Aww, bub. I’m so sorry you don’t feel good. Here. I want you to drink some of this okay?” Seth felt a straw gently placed into his mouth and then tasted cool water.

“Baba?”

“Yeah?”

“This is doe fud.”

“I bet it sure isn’t,” Lily stroked his cheek. “I brought the vaporizer. We’re gonna try to steam your room up and see if that helps. And the medicine should kick in. It’s gonna make you sleepy, baby.”

Lily stood and plugged in the vaporizer, and soon Seth was surrounded by warm steam. Then he felt his bed dip as his mother sat down and gathered him into her arms.

“I’m going to hold you kind of upright for a little while, okay? It’ll help you breathe a little easier. Everything will drain soon.”

Seth snuggled close, and it didn’t take long for his eyelids to grow heavy. Soon enough he was sound asleep, cozy as could be against his mother, wrapped in a blanket. He felt so well taken care of.

 

______________________________

 

The days turned into weeks, which turned into a month, and Roman felt like his recovery was moving slower than molasses. His brothers had long since gotten better and gone back to school, and his mother took her leave from work. It was nice that she was there to stop what she was doing any time Roman needed to have a meltdown, but the truth was he just hated it. Just hated the whole situation. He wanted to go back to school, he wanted to play football and work out or even just go for a run, but he was having trouble with balance.

He’d trip over his own feet, and if he was carrying any type of weight at all, it was worse. That was on the list of things he and his mom wrote when they were deciding what to discuss with his principal, teachers, and the school nurse. They were having a meeting to determine what, if any, special accommodations Roman would need when he returned. Other questions included what the plan would be if he needed to excuse himself from class, and what he could take in place of his athletics requirement, since football was off the table.

What Roman wanted most was to be able to play again, but that was completely out of the question. Normally, his seventh hour of the day was the beginning of practice in the fall semester, and then he ran track to fulfill the requirement in the spring. Roman wasn’t particularly fast for distance, but he did like to run and he was hoping by January he’d be cleared for it. Not being allowed to do any of his normal things frustrated him to no end. It just wasn't anywhere close to what he was used to. He'd watch his brothers and his dad play ball or wrestle, knowing full well he couldn't participate, and that usually was good for anger that Roman just couldn't control and normally never felt. It would surge up into his head, red and hot, and the unfamiliarity of it scared him a little. Often, his family just let him be, but if it got bad enough, if he lost his temper completely...he threw a glass once, and while his mother was patient, she was also very firm and a little angry. He hated himself for awhile after that. To say the whole ordeal was taking a toll on his mental health was an understatement.

He’d still get a wicked migraine every few days, and he’d have dizzy spells frequently, but overall he was feeling much better physically. There were a few things he credited this to.

First of all, he’d started physical and occupational therapy about two weeks after his head injury and he had greatly benefited from it. It was mainly a way to help him keep some muscle since he couldn’t really work out the way he was used to, but it felt really good and Roman usually felt less moody afterwards.

Then, there was his family. All of them had taken their share of turns hanging out with him when he’d needed it, They’d been caring and supportive, never taking his moody outbursts personally. Instead, his brothers shared with him stories from their day, while Dean would sit and draw and Seth would lay at the foot of Roman’s bed and stare adoringly at his older brother. It was hard for Roman to read the small print in most of their books, so Seth would often read to them instead. Roman had done a good job of keeping up with his school work, and Seth enjoyed what he called pre-reading, reading things that he’d likely be assigned next year himself.

His parents were incredible. Lily learned to channel a mood swing and was often able to cut it off, and Tony took him for long rides around the property in the golf cart since he wasn’t really able to hike like they normally would. Roman had to admit, he did enjoy being home with his mother. They’d work on his assignments, or hang out and just talk. Lots of days, he’d help her do things like fold laundry, which helped his motor skills. Occasionally, Lily would comment on how much she got done around the house when she didn’t have to go in to work; it made Roman wonder if she didn’t sometimes wish she didn't have a job.

And then, there was Megan.

Megan came out to see Roman a couple of times a week, and as he improved, she also asked his mother’s permission to take him on short, simple outings. Lily, just glad Roman was willing to get out of bed, of course always said yes. He wasn’t allowed to drive, but Megan had a green Ford Escape and she was happy to drive. The first place they went was Sonic one afternoon after school. Roman had insisted he’d pay, so they’d gotten drinks and shared an order of mozzarella sticks. A couple of times, they’d go to a park and just sit quietly together. Roman longed to offer to push her on the swings; he thought that might be romantic (though he had no real concept of romance). Since he couldn’t do that yet, instead he’d laid down with his head on her lap and they sat in silence, enjoying the breeze and watching kids play.

One Friday evening, Megan came over after dark, and said she had a surprise. His parents clearly knew the destination and were fine with it, so he obliged without hesitation, and his curiosity piqued when he realized they were leaving the city. Eventually they parked in a field, and then they stretched out on the hood of the car. Megan pointed out constellations and that night, for the very first time since he’d been in the hospital (and he’d been too sick to remember clearly, so he wasn’t counting that) he took her hand and held it for hours as they gazed up at the sky together.

What Roman wanted most was to take her on a real, traditional date. But to be honest, he just didn’t quite trust himself yet in a public place. If Megan minded, she never once let on.

Six weeks after the accident, Roman went back to school. The timing was perfect; they were just two weeks away from a week-long fall break, so he’d go back and then have a chance to regroup. Nana returned with Granddad in tow, but Lily stayed off work. Her reasoning was that she’d already planned to take a week off with Roman and Seth while Dean and Tony were in Sicily, so it didn’t seem to make much sense to go back for just two weeks. Roman suspected, however, that she wanted to make sure she could be available for him if he needed her, and that made him feel so happy and loved that he was barely nervous about returning.

His teachers had all agreed to let Roman have an extra text book for each class to keep one at home so that he didn’t have to carry books, and he opted to just take a study hall for his last period. Everything was lining up nicely.

That Monday morning, he sat up front with his mom while Seth and Dean chatted excitedly in the backseat. His hands were shaking. Lily must’ve noticed, because she reached over and squeezed them. Roman immediately relaxed. When they got to school she parked, then turned to him.

“Now remember; if you need me to come get you,” Lily began, but Roman rested his hand on her arm.

“Mom. I think I’ll be fine,” he said, then he leaned forward to hug her.

“Thank you. For everything,” Roman whispered. “I love you, Mommy.”

He felt Lily return the hug, heard her murmur a soft response into his ear, and then he got out of the car with his brothers. He was ready. He could do this.

Chapter Text

Lily was so proud of Roman.

In the two weeks since he’d returned to school, they’d had to call her just twice. The first time he got a miserable migraine shortly after third period began; he’d excused himself and gone to the nurse, who’d given him a pill, but it didn’t help. By the time Lily got there, he was crying and shivering, and then he threw up. She took him home, held and soothed him in his cool, dark bedroom, and by supper he felt considerably better; he’d even eaten some of the ham, green beans, and potatoes that Nana had prepared, and he insisted he could go back the next day. Lily was reluctant to send him, but she did anyway and he made it through the day tired but basically just fine.

The second time, he’d lost his balance. He didn’t fall; between Megan, his locker, and his friend Jeremiah, they’d managed to keep him upright. However, it flustered him so much that he couldn’t recover and he began to shake, which led to panic, which led to Megan calmly leading him to the office. He was hugging his knees crying when his mother arrived, but to Lily’s surprise, after she hugged him and let him get it out, he decided he wanted to continue his day. They calmly discussed it together, and in the end, Lily agreed.

“I’m going to Target; I can be back up here in less than 10 minutes,” she told him, and he gave her a shaky smile.

He also attended a home football game. It was Homecoming, and he wanted to take Megan to the dance, but since he couldn’t, Lily had suggested they make a night of it instead. So the Laird’s met the Girardi’s at the stadium. Dean and Seth made their customary signs. Seth’s simply said ‘Roman is our King.’ Dean drew a picture of Roman on his, and the likeness was amazing. After they game, they all went back to their house and got plenty of pizza, and then Tony moved the coffee table in the living room so Roman could ask Megan to dance. While all of this was going on, Lily realized that Seth and Megan’s sister, Katie, kept stealing glances at each other. Her heart skipped a beat.

Lily worried that, given Seth’s history of abuse, he’d never be able to form a romantic or long-term relationship with anyone; up to this point, he’d shown zero interest in girls whatsoever. She wasn’t sure what to make of it, but decided to keep quiet and see how things went.

And then there was Dean. Lily and Tony had decided they really wanted to nurture his artistic ability. His drawings were really incredible, and Lily never missed an opportunity to praise Dean’s creative side; she was crafty herself, but she’d never been much of a drawer. So a week before he and Tony went to Sicily, Lily headed to Target. She had a promise to fulfill.

“Sweetie? Come here!” Lily called, upon returning home with a brand new Canon Rebel T5i. It had been pricey, but something told her that photography wasn’t just a phase for her son. She and Tony looked at it as an investment; even if Dean had no desire to become a professional photographer, this was still a hobby that he enjoyed and excelled at and that was really important.

“Yeah, Mom?” Dean started to say something else as he entered the kitchen, but stopped short when he saw the box on the table. For a moment, he and Lily just stared at each other, Lily smiling at her baby.

“Really?” Dean whispered.

“Of course,” Lily replied.

She could tell her son could hardly believe it; his hands flew to his face and his mouth was wide.

“Can...can I open it?”

“Sweetie, it’s YOURS. Go right ahead,” Lily offered a hug, which Dean happily accepted, before carefully cutting open the box.

She showed him some of the features, and then gave him a book on how to use his new toy. When he was ready to try it out, he looked at his mother almost shyly.

“I know what picture I want to take first,” he said.

“Oh yeah? What picture?” Lily asked him.

“Does this thing do selfies?”

Lily laughed.

“Only one way to find out, sweetie.”

With that, Dean leaned in close, turned the camera around, and at the last minute, pressed a kiss to his mother’s cheek. When they turned it around, they were both delighted to see that it was actually pretty perfect. Lily looked at her son with fond adoration.

“Yup. That’s a keeper,” she said.

 

__________________________________

 

The morning Dean and Tony left for Italy, Tony beamed with pride. Dean could’ve gone anywhere, but he wanted to go see where his grandfather grew up. It made him so happy; to him, it was like Dean wanted to see where he came from, as though the adoption didn’t matter. That boy may not have had a drop of Italian blood in his body, but as far as he was concerned, he was as paisan as anyone else in the biological Girardi family. As they loaded up the Escalade, Lily pulled their middle son into a tight hug and whispered something into his ear, something that had made Dean laugh. Tony asked him about it on the drive to the airport.

“Oh...she just said, ‘remember, this is definitely something you got to do first.’ Daddy? Thank you for taking me on this trip. I love you and Mom so much.” Dean was so excited he was practically vibrating. Tony grinned back at his boy.

“I love you too, son. Honestly, going to Sicily with my kid is kind of a dream come true for me. And your Mom is right; you’re the first one to leave the country. We talk about going to Europe or on a Caribbean cruise or to Cozumel all the time but the older you three get, the harder it gets. One of these days we’ll take a big family trip. Just not sure when.”

“Maybe for our next famiversary?” Dean asked. Tony chuckled.

“Yeah, maybe.”

On the flight, they talked about bucket lists.

“Hey, Dad?” Dean asked.

“Yeah, bud?”

“What do you think Seth will pick for his bucket list trip?”

“You know...I really don’t know, Dean. Seth hasn’t ever talked about bucket lists with Mom and me. I don’t even know what’s on it, to be honest.” Tony’s reply was truthful. Seth had never ever discussed it; Tony wasn’t sure he even had one.

“Why? Do you think?” Dean questioned, and Tony shrugged.

“I don’t know. Maybe he just doesn’t know what to choose,” Or maybe he doesn’t want to go anywhere alone with me, Tony thought, but he didn’t say that out loud.

“Sometimes I think Seth is just still afraid,” Dean confided.

“Oh, I know he is,” Tony replied. “But really, think about it. Twelve years. Twelve years of horror. It’s probably going to take more than three years to right all of that.”

Then, keen to change the subject, Tony asked Dean,

“What else is on your list?”

“Hmm…” Dean considered the question. “I want to see snow.”

“You want to see snow?”

“Yeah. I mean, not just see it. Play in it and stuff. Maybe ski? And then curl up in front of the fireplace with some hot chocolate with little marshmallows.” Dean looked dreamy.

Tony couldn’t help it; he started to laugh.

“What?” Dan said accusingly. “I’ve never seen real snow in person before.”

“No, it’s just---I’m sorry, Dean. I didn’t mean to laugh; just the way you said it was funny. I think that’s a perfect bucket list item.”

“What’s on yours, Dad?” Dean wanted to know.

“Gosh...I don’t know. I’ve always wanted to go scuba diving.

“Skydiving!” Dean exclaimed.

“Oh, I’ve done that. You’d love it.” Tony smiled at Dean.

“I’ve always kind of wanted to open a group home for kids after I retired,” he confided to his boy.

“Really?” Dean was intrigued.

“Yeah. I don’t even know if you can do that privately, but I think sometimes about Roman’s and Seth’s experiences in the system, and it makes me wish I could help some other kids who really need it.”

“I’d be proud,” said Dean after a moment and Tony wrapped his arm around his son.

“Love you, buddy,” he said quietly.

“I love you too, Dad.”

They sat quietly for a few minutes, before Dean spoke again.

“Dad?”

“Hmm?”

“I want to surf in Australia. Let’s add that to my bucket list.”

“Oh, I’d totally be there with you for that,” Tony replied. “I want to go to Alaska.”

“On a boat? Like a cruise?” Dean wondered. Tony nodded.

“Could be. Or just fly up and do some hiking and stuff.”

Dean nodded himself.

“That sounds fun. Someday, I want to own my own business.” Dean murmured.

“What kind of business, son?” Tony asked.

“I don’t know. Just...just something where I can be my own boss. I don’t know. I don’t really have any idea what I want to do after high school.”

“That’s okay, buddy. I didn’t either at your age.”

“You didn’t?” Dean questioned.

“Nope. Sure didn’t. I wanted to do a lot of things before I decided to try for the FBI.” Tony patted Dean’s shoulder. “You’ve got time, bud.”

“I know. I’m just...nothing interests me the same way Seth’s into animals and Roman’s into football. I mean I LOVE animals, but I don’t think I want to be a vet.”

“That’s okay, Dean. I love animals too---OUR animals. I don’t think I’d want to spend all day every day with other people’s.” Tony smiled at Dean, who laughed a little.

“You know Mama didn’t declare her major as Biology/Pre-Med til she was like a junior in college?”

“Really?”

“Really.

“Mom signed me up for a photography class, Dad.” Dean said.

“I know. Are you excited?”

“Yeah. There have to be all kinds of fun things to learn. But I’m mostly looking forward to taking photos in Sicily.”

“Me too, buddy,” Tony replied fondly, ruffling Dean’s honey colored hair.

 

____________________________

 

Meanwhile, back in Houston, the three remaining Girardi’s were in full relaxation mode. They slept in every day. They stayed up late watching movies and eating popcorn every night. They ate out a lot, too. Lily proclaimed early on that she didn’t intend to do much cooking, and that seemed fine with the boys.

About halfway through their break Lily took them to Roman’s neurologist appointment. He had to have a repeat MRI and skull xrays. It was a long morning, but she brought Seth along anyway with the intention of taking her oldest and her youngest out for sushi afterwards. Neither Tony nor Dean was a big fan of sushi, so as a family they didn’t go out to eat it often. Roman and Seth, though, loved it; it was one of Roman’s favorite foods and Seth was shaping up to be a true foodie. There wasn’t much he wouldn’t eat. It was a stark contrast to when he first came home, back when he wouldn’t eat anything.

The visit with Dr. Gartland went...well, that depended on who you asked.

Lily was thrilled. The fracture in Roman’s skull was sealing nicely, and his scans showed no lesions or anything else on his brain that indicated any permanent damage, and Dr. Gartland was very encouraged by Roman’s progress.

On the other hand, Roman was devastated. He’d been hoping, Lily knew, for more freedom to move around and actually live. Not one restriction was lifted, and he didn’t really understand that he was right on schedule in the healing process. He picked at his lunch, then went straight to bed the second they got home, and neither Lily’s nor Seth’s attempts at comforting him were of any use. That’s when they decided desperate times called for desperate measures.

“What’s the one thing Roman wants to do more than anything else?” Lily asked Seth after being asked to leave Roman alone for the 5th time.

“Take Megan out for a real date,” Seth said without hesitation. Lily was surprised; she’d figured Seth would say play football, though if she thought about it honestly, she knew her youngest was probably right.

“Okay,” Lily murmured. “How can we simulate that as close as possible?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never been on a date. What do people do?” Seth asked, and Lily grinned.

“Well, traditionally, there are things like dinner and a movie,” Lily began.

“Okay…” Seth considered this. “What if we take them to the movie theater and drop them off, and you and I go out for supper?”

“That sounds more like a date for you and me, bub,” Lily said with a laugh.

“Well...we could go shopping instead. I need new skinny jeans…”

“Already?”

“It’s fall, Mom. I haven’t worn them since April. I guess I grew over the summer.”

“Ah. Well, I suppose there’s that. You gotta quit growing, bub. I need you to stay my baby forever.”

“I’m not a baby, Mama…” Seth turned to look at her, his massive eyes trained on her face.

“No. I know you’re not,” Lily whispered, then kissed his forehead. “You’re all growing up. Way too fast for this mama. But you’re all three always gonna be my babies, Seth William.”

“Oh, Mom...I love you,” Seth grinned at his mother. “Now let’s decide how to surprise Roman.

Chapter Text

In Italy, Dean was having the time of his life, just him and his dad. He missed his mom and his brothers, of course, but there was just something about spending time with his father. The trip there was long and kind of arduous; they flew from Houston to New York, then New York to Rome. All of that was long but fine; then they boarded their connection to Palermo and it was a teensy little puddle jumper. If Dean hadn’t been so utterly exhausted he might have thrown a fit over it, but instead he just pressed his face against his dad and waited for it to be over.

It was late, around 3 am Sicily time, when they finally arrived, and both were far too tired to do much besides crash in their resort. Dean wasn’t even sure how it happened, but at some point, he made his way into his father’s bed and he woke up with Tony’s arm wrapped gently around him. His father hadn’t awakened yet, so Dean laid still, thinking about how warm, happy, and safe he felt. Just the fact that his parents took his desires so seriously---new camera, bucket list trip, telling him it was okay to be unsure about the future---well, Dean just didn’t know what he’d done to be so lucky.

It occurred to him while he was laying there, only semi-awake himself, that he couldn’t remember the last time he’d even thought about Shelby, much less had to stop his entire life to work out some random anxiety, nightmare, or fit of anger. It felt good, to feel so secure. No matter what happened, he knew he’d found his real parents. Dean sincerely hoped that someday, his father would follow through with his dream of opening his own group home. They’d be a fortunate bunch of kids.

Once his dad woke up and they’d gotten dressed, the first thing Dean got to experience in Italy was real, authentic Italian food.

Breakfast was long over, so Tony took Dean to a place called Ferro di Cavallo. They split an antipasti first. It had some...interesting...things in it.

“What’s this, Dad?” Dean picked up a mystery chunk of something on his fork and stared at it.

“That’s a fig. They’re kind of sweet,” Tony forked one too and stuck it in his mouth. “Mmmmm…they just don’t make ‘em like this in the States, son.”

Dean tried it, and it didn’t take long for him to decide he was not a fan.

He loved the roasted red peppers though, and the eggplant, and the prosciutto. The salami, he thought, was spicier than absolutely necessary, but not too bad. And then he came across something that completely grossed him out.

“Dad? Is this...an anchovy?”

“Sure is,” Tony said with a grin. “Try it.”

“NO WAY!” Dean squealed, equally delighted and filled with dread.

“Why not?” Tony prodded. “Scared?”

“Of a tiny dead fish? Of course I’m not scared, it just...ew.”

“You don’t get to say ew to something you’ve never tried, Dean,” his father grinned even wider. “You just don’t like the stigma.” With that, Dad popped an anchovy
into his mouth.

“Tasty,” he looked at Dean smugly. “Guess you won’t be the first Girardi boy to try one---”

That was all Dean needed to hear. He stuck the tiny fish into his mouth, chewed, and swallowed.

It wasn’t half bad, actually.

“Hmmm….salty,” he said and Tony laughed.

“Right? Just don’t tell Mama we’ve been eating these or she may not kiss either one of us again,” his father said with a smile.

Once the antipasti was gone, they ordered half a dozen cannoli, and strolled back to the hotel they were sleeping at, each happily munching on a sweet, creamy pastry.

“Your Papa used to make these,” Tony told Dean. “When I was a kid, he’d make them fresh with his own dough. Got harder as he got older. Arthritis, you know. So they started getting them from an Italian bakery, but nothing beats that old man’s cannoli.”

Dean didn’t miss the glaze that cast over his father’s eyes before Tony shook his head, looked at his son, and said,

“C’mon. Let’s put these inside, and then I’m gonna show you some of the sights.”

 

_______________________________

 

Roman laid in bed with his arms around Honey Badger. He wasn’t sure if he was angry, sad, disappointed, scared, or maybe a mix of those things. He did know that he didn’t feel like talking. His mother tried, but after several failed attempts, she left him alone. Or so he thought, until, again, he felt the bed dip beside him.

“Mom, please….I just don’t---” Roman began, but instead of his mother, Seth’s voice interrupted him.

“We don’t have to talk,” his brother said, reaching over Roman’s hip to stroke Honey Badger’s soft fur. Honey, although loyal as ever, was looking pretty gray around the muzzle these days. The thought of his beloved companion growing older just depressed Roman further, so he tried to push the thought out of his head. Instead, he addressed his brother.

“What do you want, Seth?”

“In a perfect world?” Seth asked. “Well, I’d definitely start with Ben & Jerry’s for dinner every night. Every flavor. Except mint chocolate chip, yuck.”

“What’s wrong with mint chocolate chip?” Roman wanted to know. “You like it when Mama makes mint brownies.”

“Yeah, but those are brownies. We’re talking about ice cream. Now, after that, I guess I’d probably want a car, except, and if you tell anyone this I’ll deny it, but I’m kind of afraid of learning to drive, so I guess I’d also need a driver.”

Roman sighed.

“You’re not funny, bro,” he whispered.

“Who’s trying to be funny?” Seth did sound quite serious. “You’re the one who asked. It’s a great question, by the way. Now, once I had my ice cream and my car, I suppose I wouldn’t mind a guitar. I don’t have the first idea how to PLAY a guitar, but it’d still be fun to have one. Think it’d impress the girls?”

It was getting harder not to smile, and Roman knew if he made eye contact it would be over, so instead of looking at Seth, he pressed his face into his pillow, and then he lifted his head and asked,

“What do you think Dad and Dean are doing right now?”

“Well…” Seth paused. “If I know Dean, and I think I do, he’s probably eating pasta til he pukes.”

And Roman couldn’t hold in his laugh at that. Finally, he turned to face Seth.

“Yeah...you’re probably right,” he said. Seth leaned over and hugged him and Roman found himself sagging against his brother slightly.

“I fucking hate this,” he whispered, half expecting Seth to shrug him off or at least cringe. Instead, he hugged Roman a little tighter.

“I know. I wish I could change it. I’ve wished a million times that I could go back and warn you somehow. But I can’t. And you can’t. And I know that what you’re feeling---you’re sad---you can’t help it. You aren’t alone, though. I’m here. And Mama. And Daddy and Dean too, even though they’re here from afar.”

“Here from afar?” Roman snorted. “Don’t ever write love poems, okay?”

Seth coaxed Roman out of bed soon after, and he found he was feeling better, and hungry.

“What do you guys want for dinner?” Lily asked when Roman told her.

“Kona Grill,” he answered.

“That good with you, bub?” Lily asked Seth, but he was already nodding his head; no way was he going to pass on steak and more sushi.

“You sure you’re up for the mall, Ro?” Mom was just making sure; Roman knew this. And no, he wasn’t sure, thank you, but he was getting so tired of doubting himself that he just said,

“Yup.”

It was over dinner that Lily and Seth told Roman about their big idea.

“Ro, I think you need to ask Megan out on a date,” his mother said. “A real one. Dinner, then a movie. Then maybe dessert.”

Roman snorted.

“And how, pray tell, do you expect me to take her on any sort of date?” He didn’t mean to sound obnoxious; it just sort of came out that way.

“We have a plan,” Seth informed him.

“A good one,” Mom added.

“Let’s hear it,” said Roman.

And they told him. And he had to admit---he liked it.

 

______________________________

 

Tony didn’t anticipate how hard it would be to go to Sicily now that his father was gone, but one thing he did know---there was no one on Earth he’d rather be there with than Dean.

He took his son as many places as he could that were within walking distance of the hotel. Their first stop was Fontana Pretoria. Dean took one look and burst out laughing.

“What ARE they?” Tony couldn’t help it; he laughed too.

“They’re Nymphs,” he told his son.

“But...they’re NAKED,” Dean snorted.

“I know. The fountain was erected in the 1500’s. See that building over there?”

Dean nodded.

“Well, that’s a church and for awhile, they found the fountain so offensive that they called it the Fountain of Shame.”

Dean laughed again.

“So it pissed people off?”

“Well yeah, but I guess not too many. It’s been like 500 years and it’s still there, right?”

Dean nodded his agreement.

“Well, I have to take a picture of it,” he said, “because Seth and Roman won’t believe me if I don’t have evidence.”

They continued to walk until they ended up at a shop called Siculamente. Sheer curiosity brought them through the door, and instantly, Tony saw Dean’s eyes settle on a white t-shirt with a pop art parrot on it.

“Think Seth would like this?” Dean questioned, and Tony nodded.

“Yeah, he probably would,” Tony replied. “Want to pick some things out for your brothers?”

“Sure. What about Mom?” Dean asked.

“If you find anything, we’ll pick it up, but I have a different shop in mind for her,” Tony answered.

Dean picked out funky t-shirts for himself and his brothers. Then he found himself a hoodie and a white fedora. Finally, he came across a scarf that Tony agreed that Lily was sure to love.

As they walked towards their next stop, they came across a street market called Mercato de Ballaro. Everything was abundant and cheap. They purchased some fresh-baked garlic bread and several different types of cheese, and agreed that they’d eat it for dinner back at the hotel. They laughed at the vendor selling Chinese padded bras. Dean snapped pictures as he saw the opportunity, and Tony found he was genuinely looking forward to seeing them.

Together, they slowly perused the stalls and munched on fresh grapes and olives. Dean treated his father to a fizzy Italian soda, and they picked out a handmade blanket for Lily. The best thing, though, was a guy who, for 50 Euros, would draw your picture. Dean and Tony sat together and talked and laughed while the guy drew, and when he was done, Tony couldn’t help but grin broadly.

It was pretty close to perfect, and he handed it to Dean.

“We’ll make a copy when we get home, but you should have the original, buddy,” Tony said. Dean’s smile grew even larger.

It was growing dark as they walked back to the resort that would be their home for the next few days, and Tony could tell his boy was growing tired. His steps began to drag. Tony wrapped his arm around Dean as they walked, noting the way Dean leaned against him. When they got to their room, he was asleep almost as soon as his head hit the pillow. Tony decided they could have the bread and cheese for breakfast; the took Dean’s shoes off and covered him with the new blanket they’d chosen for his mother. He tried to lay down and go to sleep, but instead he found himself staring at his son’s serene face and counting his blessings once again that he got to be the father of this amazing boy and his two brothers.

Chapter Text

Roman sent Megan a text inviting her out to the house on Thursday night for a big surprise. She had no idea what to expect, but just spending time with Roman was incentive enough to show up. She really liked this boy. She hadn’t had many boyfriends up to this point, but Roman...Roman was different.

He was sweet, quiet, and watching him encourage the younger football players was a real treat. Watching him interact with his younger brothers was a thing of beauty. Plus, she got butterflies in her stomach every time they touched. She especially liked holding his hand. For a big tough guy, his hands were so soft. There wasn’t much about Roman that Megan didn’t like though, if she was honest.

Also, Roman inspired her. She was well aware that his life hadn’t gotten off to the greatest start, but you’d never know it. Megan herself subscribed to the theory that happiness is a choice, and that was one thing about Roman that she really appreciated: he chose positive. Sure, he was struggling at the moment, but that wasn’t his fault, and really, he was doing a pretty good job. She was thrilled when, one evening, Roman texted her that he wanted to have a date, and could she please meet him at his house?

Still, Megan knew he was frustrated because of all of the things he currently couldn’t do, so she was intrigued by this invitation.

What should I wear?

She texted back in response.

We’re eating Italian food, Roman replied. Comfortable and casual is fine.

Italian sounded good to Megan. She figured Roman’s mother was probably going to drop them off at Olive Garden or something like that, and that worked for her. She was quite surprised at the scene that awaited her when she arrived at the Girardi house.

Roman answered the door dressed in jeans and a 49ers t-shirt, his dark hair falling in waves around his shoulders. Megan felt her heart skip a beat; how a guy could look so beyond incredible in just regular clothes was anyone’s guess, but Roman sure pulled it off. He smiled at her.

“I know I can’t take you out,” he began, “but I think you---we---deserve a real date. This is the best I can do. I hope you like it.”

And he led Megan towards the dining room, where Megan immediately noticed that a dry erase board on an easel had been set up outside the door.

“Caffe di Girardi,” it read. Megan was still perplexed, until Roman’s mother appeared at the door.

“Good evening, and welcome to Caffe di Girardi,” she said, pegging the Italian accent perfectly. “A table for two, sir?”

“Yes please,” Roman replied. Lily led them into the dining room, and Megan inhaled sharply.

She’d been in there before, but tonight the room had been transformed. The table was covered in a red and white checkered tablecloth. It had two place settings and two candles in the center, along with flowers in a vase. The lights were dimmed, and the candles cast soft shadows that danced on the walls. And the smell was just heavenly. Roman pulled out a chair for Megan, then seated himself across from her. Lily handed them each a menu that touted the following:

Especiale della Serata

Zuppa: Minestrone
Pasto: Spaghetti with meatballs, salad, garlic bread sticks
Dolce: Gelato

Megan couldn’t contain her smile; this was downright adorable, and no one had ever done anything so romantic for her before. Her grin widened as Lily said,

“Very good, sir. Your server will be with you shortly.”

Moments later, Seth entered the room.

“Good evening, sir, madame,” he began. “My name is LuigiSeth and I will be your server this evening. May I start you off with a beverage?”

Seth’s accent wasn’t quite as convincing as Lily’s, but Megan loved it anyway and she could tell by his face that Roman did too.

“We would like two non-alcoholic Bellinis, please,” Roman told Seth---err, LuigiSeth.

“Excellent choice,” LuigiSeth replied. “I’ll be back with those and some water in a moment.”

Seth left and Megan turned to Roman.

“This is incredible,” she said with a laugh.

Roman grinned too.

“You like it?” He asked.

“I love it,” she replied. “This beats a restaurant at the mall any day of the week.”

Soon Seth brought their drinks and they ordered the “special.” While they waited they talked and Megan learned some things about Roman that she’d never known before. That his biological mother was an alcoholic---Megan was aware that she was not very nice, but Roman never wanted to talk about her in detail. Roman also confided that as he got closer to college, he was beginning to feel insecure about leaving home and being out on his own.

“I was basically on my own for so long when I was younger,” he said. “I just...I love my family, and the thought of leaving makes me feel like I’m drowning. And...I love playing football. But I know the odds of making it to the NFL are slim and I’m beginning to feel like I need a new plan.”

“Well, there’s time,” Megan answered. “But honestly, I haven’t decided what I want to do either. I know if I want to go I’m going to have to get a scholarship, and the best chance at that is probably basketball, but once I get there? Who knows?”

Roman was about to reply, but then LuigiSeth returned and set two steaming bowls of minestrone on the table in front of them, followed by a basket of bread. The soup was delicious, and for a while, neither of them spoke. Then Megan thought of something.

“I think you’d be really good at a job that involved working with children. I’ve seen the way you advise your teammates. Even just the way you interact with Dean and Seth. You make people feel like they can conquer whatever goal they’ve set.”

Roman looked down into his soup; was he blushing? So cute, Megan thought. At that moment, Seth came back to the table with plates of spaghetti topped with thick, round meatballs and red sauce. As she and Roman dug in, Megan was struck by a thought.

“Is this homemade?”

“Yeah. My mom makes it. She doesn’t grow many veggies, just tomatoes and cucumbers and some herbs, but one thing she always does is take the extra tomatoes and can sauce.”

“It’s amazing. No one in my house can cook. When my mom makes spaghetti she buys noodles and a jar of sauce from Walmart, and half the time the noodles aren’t cooked right. We’re lucky if we get meat at all and if we do, it’s ground hamburger.”

“Oh, I’m useless at it too. Mom’s offered to teach me some stuff and I guess I ought to learn it. Seth loves it though.”

They talked a little more, and Seth came to clear their plates. Then Roman stood and took Megan’s hand. She stood too.

“C’mon. Let’s go into the living room and watch a movie?” It was a question. Megan nodded. And as Roman guided her into the living room, he leaned over and
placed a gentle kiss on her lips. Megan’s heart did a huge flip flop.

 

____________________________

 

About halfway through their trip, it rained. And by rained, Dean really meant poured. From the balcony of the resort, he could see the Mediterranean pound angrily against the shore. So much for walking around town today.

“Doesn’t mean we won’t go do something. In fact, I’ve got an idea. But that’s for later; what do you say for now, we decide what we want to do the rest of our days.”

That sounded fair enough; Dean had just two requests. First of all, he wanted to go to the beach.

“I know it’s probably too chilly to swim but how many times does a guy get to see the Mediterranean Sea, Dad?” Dean asked. His father agreed.

The other request was a little harder to make.

“Dad? Do you know where Papa used to live?” Tony smiled at him.

“I know the very house,” he answered Dean softly. “And before this trip is over, I’ll take you to see it.”

“Do people live there now?” Dean asked.

“I don’t know, buddy. We’ll just have to see. So since we can’t get around the city by foot today, I thought we’d go out for a nice meal, and I know just the place.”

The “nice meal” ended up being in a place called Ristorante Peperino, whose sign boasted “pasto Italiano tradizionale, dieci corso.”

“What exactly does that MEAN?” Dean asked, curious.

“Well, the Italians have always held the belief that meal time is a time for connection among people, to talk and enjoy each other. So a traditional Italian meal is ten courses, and they’re served fairly spaced out, so a meal like this can often take several hours.”

“TEN COURSES?” Dean could hardly believe this.

“Yeah, although a course could be considered a drink when the meal begins or ends, an appetizer, etc. So it isn’t all food, but it’s still each considered an individual course.”

It sounded kind of fun, and Dean was starving; he still couldn’t fathom a ten course meal, but it would be an experience for sure. A small, olive-skinned woman greeted them at the door and led them to a small table in a corner. Instead of seating them across from each other, she sat them side by side. Dean could see the whole restaurant from where they sat, and he took it in.

Sicily wasn’t a terribly modern place; this was one of the things Dean loved the most about it. However, this restaurant was nearly primitive. There were no electric lights in the ceiling; just lanterns. Candles on the tables provided more of the individual light. The place was about half full.

“Don’t they have electricity?” He asked Tony dubiously.

Tony grinned.

“Don’t worry. This is all just for ambiance. The kitchen is fully electric. They have refrigerators.”

Dean sighed, relieved.

The first “course” ended up being a before dinner drink. This, Tony explained, would traditionally be some sort of champagne or wine. Dean was about 6 weeks short of the legal age to participate, so he ordered uva frizzante, which, upon tasting it, was basically sparkling grape juice.

“This is to cleanse the palate before the meal begins. Allegedly, bubbly drinks wake up your tastebuds.”

Dean laughed at this, although when he thought about it, it did make sense.

The next thing to order was antipasto, an appetizer. Dean ordered bruschetta, Tony ordered prawn cocktail, and then they shared. While they nibbled, they talked.

“Roman invited Megan over to the house and Mom and Seth cooked them spaghetti and meatballs and did it all up like an Italian restaurant,” Dean told Tony.

“I heard that. That was a pretty good idea. Think they had fun?”

“He kissed her…”

“He likes her,” Tony said with a smile. “And it seems she likes him.”

“Yeah...they kind of make me think of Kala.” Dean almost felt wistful.

“You miss her huh?” Tony patted Dean’s arm.

“Yeah. More than I thought I would. I knew it was temporary. But she was the first girl I ever really felt connected to,” Dean replied.

“Son, believe me, I know that at the age you’re at, it feels like bigger things are never going to come. But they will. I promise you that. Just be patient.”

Soon it was time to order course three, primo, which was still considered an appetizer but heavier than what had already been consumed. Dean played it safe with
pasta and marinara sauce, but Tony enjoyed saffron risotto. Dean wasn’t sure if he trusted anything quite that yellow, but his father encouraged him to try it. He did, and it was actually pretty good. The fourth and fifth courses, secondo and contorno, were actually served together, and they consisted of a main course and a side dish. At this point Dean realized that the Italians were not chintzy with their servings; he’d ordered lobster and was presented with 4 giant tails, while Tony’s pork loin was also massive. Sauteed vegetables were served on separate plates. The really cool thing was that since everything was served in increments, Dean wasn’t even really feeling full.

They ate in silence for awhile. It was Tony who brought Papa Angelo up again.

“He’d have been so proud of you, Dean. He was proud of you when he was alive, and I know he’s proud of you now. I know sometimes you get lost in the middle of the Girardi Boy Sandwich, but you’ve got a heart of gold. I’m so proud to be your dad.”

Dean blushed.

“I...I really miss him, Daddy,” he whispered in response. “It doesn’t feel like it’s tearing me apart anymore, but it still...it just hurts.”

Tony set his fork down and reached for Dean’s hand.

“I know, son. Believe me. I know. And it will. And you know what? That’s okay. I think the important thing is to remember that as long as he stays in your heart, he’ll never be truly gone. Know what else would’ve made him proud?”

“What?” Dean was staring at his plate, trying to ward off the tears that were threatening to spring to his eyes.

“He’d be proud that you wanted to know about where he grew up, and that you came here, and explored, and made amazing memories, and ordered lobster. Lobster was his favorite thing ever. I remember, as a kid, on Pop’s birthday, or Father’s Day, everybody else would be eating pasta and Pop would be sitting at the head of the table with his lobster tails and his butter. He always said eating butter would make you live longer. He made it to 90 so maybe there’s something to that.”

Dean smiled then, thinking of his Papa.

“I think it was the walks,” he confided; Papa Angelo got up early every morning and walked to the corner store to buy a newspaper. His children would gently tease him, but rain or shine, Papa did his thing.

“He met interesting people on those walks,” Tony agreed. “Some of the time you didn’t even know if he was telling you the truth; once he came home and said he’d met a circus trainer with 18 dogs all performing tricks in a line behind him.”

“He told me once that he did it because he met Nonna while he was out walking one day. He said it wasn’t that he was looking for another girl, but if something so amazing could happen to him once, then something amazing could happen again and if he missed a walk he’d never know.”

“He was probably right, you know,” Tony replied, and Dean nodded.

The sixth course was insalata, and Dean was surprised when the server set a leafy green salad in front of him. He tasted it; the vinaigrette on it was yummy, but Dean was confused.

“So in Italy they serve salad AFTER the main course?”

“Traditionally, yeah. I’m not sure how it got to be that in America you tend to eat salad first.”

“Interesting,” Dean said. “What’s next?”

“Formaggi e frutta,” Tony replied.

“Cheese and fruit? That’s something else I’d have figured would go first.” Dean was curious about all of this. “So Papa grew up eating this way?”

“I mean I don’t think they had ten-course meals every day,” Tony said.

“No, but I mean, when they did, they had stuff so...out of order?”

“Yeah. By the time he got to the States it was different; we rarely ate like this when I was a child. Only on really special occasions.”

They stopped talking for awhile after that; they enjoyed the rich cheese and fruit tray (except the figs; Dean was pretty sure he was never going to develop a taste for those).

Over dolce, they got back to discussing the future. Dean was eating spumoni cake, his father cassata, when a question he’d never asked before occurred to him.

“Dad, do you and Mom ever want grandchildren?”

Tony choked a little on his cake.

“Ummm...I mean yeah I guess. Maybe. Like not TOMORROW or anything. But if kids is something that’ll make you boys happy---when you’re ready, of course---then Mom and I will welcome grandchildren. Do you think you’d like to have some?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. Don’t know if I’d be a very good dad...not like you,” Dean murmured.

“Bet you would. Bet someday, when you’re ready, you’ll make a great dad.”

The ninth course was caffe, and as Dean sipped the hot, bitter liquid, he realized that he didn’t like it anymore now than he had in Hawaii. Tony passed him the sugar, which he gratefully dumped into his cup.

The tenth and final course was called ammazzacaffe, and not much to Dean’s surprise, it involved alcohol.

“For the tenth course, you’re supposed to drink a light, fruity beverage,” Tony explained. “It’s to help you digest. In fact, some people call this course digestivo, but I think ammazzacaffe sounds much better, don’t you?”

Dean nodded, and then nearly fell over when his father ordered for them.

“We’ll have two limoncellos, please,” Tony told the server.

Dean waited until she was out of earshot to kick his father under the table.

“Dad! I’m not old enough!”

“You’re close enough. Don’t you want to try it?” Tony asked him.

“Well...yeah. But not if it’s gonna get us in trouble!”

“It’ll be okay, bud. You’re with a parent, and like I said, you’re close enough. Now hush.”

The drink was served; it was yellow and clear and given to them in tiny little wine glasses. Dean took just a small sip first.

It tasted heavenly. Lemony and tart and sweet. And when he swallowed, he felt a strange but not uncomfortable warm sensation follow it down his throat.

“This is amazing,” he whispered.

“I know. You just can’t find it like this at home. Now, you know that just because I let you have a taste of alcohol on a very important vacation that doesn’t meant that you can just go home and start drinking right?”

“Dad. Please. Of course I know that. You gotta be much older at home anyway. And besides, even if I wanted to drink, I don’t think I could. You know how Roman feels about alcohol…”

Roman was leary of alcohol and people who consumed it. Dean guessed it was because his biological mother had been a raging alcoholic, and it had caused her to mistreat him. The Girardi’s were not drinkers. Every so often, at a restaurant or special occasion, Lily and Tony might enjoy a beverage that contained a little, that was pretty much it. They didn’t even keep beer or wine at the house.

“That’s noble of you, son,” Tony grinned. “Feeling okay?”

“Yeah. Why?”

“Well, you drank that a little fast for your first taste…” It was then that Dean realized that he’d swallowed all of his limoncello. He felt warm and full, and more than a little sleepy. It felt good.

“I’m good. Dad?”

“Yeah?”

“You know how you always tell me that you’re proud to be my dad?”

“I mean it. Every word.”

“I know,” Dean said. “But what I need to tell you is---I’m proud to be your son.”

 

_______________________________

 

Tonight, Seth had seen true peace in Roman’s face for the first time in months. After Roman and Megan retired to the living room to watch their movie, he helped his mom do the dishes.

“This idea was spot on, bub,” Lily told him with a smile. “Roman looked so happy.”

“Megan did too. And he KISSED her!” Seth could barely contain a squeal. Then he paused.

“Mama? Now I’m the only one who hasn’t kissed a girl…”

Lily turned to him.

“How do you feel about that?”

“Okay. I think kissing is probably overrated…”

“Kissing is something you definitely shouldn’t do until you’ve found the right person,” Lily agreed.

“Did you kiss anyone before Dad?”

“I...yeah. I did. He’s the best kisser ever though,” Lily replied.

“Ew,” said Seth.

Once everything was clean and put away, his mother peeked in on Roman and Megan. Seth saw her smile light up, and then she motioned him over.

“Look.”

Roman had stretched out on his side on the couch. Megan had stretched out in front of him. His arm was wrapped around her middle, and they were both asleep. It made Seth feel good to see Roman finally relax.

“C’mon, Seth,” Lily murmured. “You and I can go watch a movie in my room.”

“Can I sleep in your bed?”

“We’ll see.”

They agreed on St. Vincent, a movie they’d both seen before but both loved. Seth snuggled against Lily as they watched. He almost fell asleep himself, except then the phone rang. Mom got out of bed to answer it. Seth only heard her side of the conversation but he paid attention when he saw the frown on her face.”

“Hello? No, Dean isn’t here right now. Can I take a message for you? Pardon? Well, he’s out of the country at the moment. He’ll be back...later. Sir? Can I ask how you know my son?”

The call ended abruptly; Seth could tell the caller had hung up.

“That was odd,” Lily murmured.

“What?”

“Well, he got very irritated when I told him Dean was gone for awhile. And I don’t like the way he hung up on me…”

“Huh,” Seth shrugged it off. “Maybe someone from school.”

“Yeah, maybe,” Lily settled next to Seth again and they finished the movie in peace.

When it was over, both got up to find Roman and Megan snuggled up on the couch watching Criminal Minds.

“Did you guys have fun tonight?” Seth asked earnestly.

Megan grinned.

“This was the best first date I’ve ever had,” she said. “But it’s late. I should probably get going.”

Roman walked her to the door and then hugged her tight, and both Lily and Seth smiled when he leaned down and pressed his lips to hers in a long, tender kiss.

“See you tomorrow,” he whispered.

Chapter Text

The rest of Dean and Tony’s trip flew by and before either of them knew it, it was time to start the journey back to Houston.

The day after their ten-course meal, Tony had hailed a cab and he and Dean had ridden to the outskirts of Palermo. It wasn’t exactly farm country, but not entirely city neighborhoods either. The houses were spread. Yards were mostly dirt and rocks, and goats wandered around free like children. You could no longer see or smell the Mediterranean, and there didn’t seem to be many people around. Tony asked the cab driver to drop them off and return in one hour.

Dean was in awe. This was it. This was where Papa Angelo, HIS Papa Angelo, had grown up. As he walked up the path with his dad, he closed his eyes for a minute and tried to envision Papa as a little boy, running and jumping and making mischief. It wasn’t hard to do. Dean had his camera at the ready. The home appeared deserted, so they wandered around, Dean taking photos and Tony telling stories.

“I remember visiting as a kid. My grandmother, Nonna Sofia, always had a clothesline over there,” Tony pointed. “And Papa’s father, my Nonno, whose name was Pietro, always sat in a chair on the porch. There were chickens and goats and us kids would run around and occasionally he would holler, ‘Antonio! Quit chasing that chicken.’ In Italian, of course.”

“How many brothers and sisters did Papa have?” Dean asked.

Tony laughed.

“Now that’s kind of a mystery. Nonna Sofia said 17, and you’d figure she would know, but Pietro always swore up and down that there were 19 and two were just hiding.”

“Either way...Sofia must’ve been a saint.”

Tony laughed again.

“Nonna Sofia carried a switch wherever she went. All of their kids had a lot of kids, and she was definitely not all about sparing the rod. And that woman---damn, could she cook. She could’ve put your mother to shame.”

Ludicrous, Dean thought. Lily was the best cook in the world.

“She made all of her pasta by hand. You’d walk into her kitchen and it’d be hanging everywhere to dry. She used to let me pinch the farfalle. Neither of them spoke a word of English, and she didn’t allow it in her house. She whack you with that switch if she caught you speaking it. I learned Italian real quick.”

Dean laughed.

“I wish I could have met her,” he said. “Pietro, too.”

“I know. So many people in our family tree. They’d have loved you, bud. Just like your Papa.”

Tony wrapped his arm around Dean.

“Come on. There’s something I want to show you.”

They walked back behind the house and Dean inhaled sharply; there was vineyard as far as his eyes could see.

“They made their own wine; back then everyone did. We used to think it was the best thing in the world to take off our shoes and socks and stomp on grapes. Your
Nonna would be so mad when Uncle Joe and I would come home with our feet stained for weeks.”

Dean laughed again.

“I love it, Dad.”

When the cab returned, Tony instructed the driver to head to the opposite end of Palermo, to the Mediterranean Coast. They’d walked barefoot in the sand, and in spite of the 65 degree weather, Dean waded in a little. It was chilly but not freezing, and the waves were different from the ocean. He decided then and there that someday, no matter what it took, he’d come back some day.

Now, on the flight from London to New York, Dean leaned against his father and sighed placidly. It had been amazing, the whole thing. Still, though, he was ready to get back to the rest of the family. He’d missed Roman and Seth, and especially Mom. He couldn’t wait to tell them all about it, and show them all of the close to 1,000 pictures he took. And he really couldn’t wait for his mother’s hug.

He fell asleep somewhere over the Atlantic, and woke with a start when his father rubbed his arm.

“Dean? Wake up, buddy. We’re at JFK. Gotta change planes.”

He felt so tired. His father, Dean knew, travelled to London on business a few times a year, and he’d gone to Italy more than once as well. Was this what jetlag felt like? When they landed in the U.S., while they waited for their connecting flight, Dean pulled out his phone and called his mom.

“Sweetie! Oh, baby, it’s so good to hear your voice. Are you in the City?”

It had been hard to call home with the time difference, so they’d only done it once, and opted to email instead. That was more convenient.

“Yeah. I think we have like two hours here before we leave for Houston. It’s good to hear your voice too, Mama,” Dean answered.

“I’ve missed you so much, sweetheart. I’m so glad you got to go with Daddy on this trip but it’s been like a third of my heart is missing. I can’t wait to hear all about it. I love you, Dean.” Lily sounded so genuinely happy to hear from him that it made Dean’s heart flutter.

“I love you too, Mama. Tell Roman and Seth hi. We’ll be home in just like six more hours!”

“I know! Longest six hours ever, I’m sure, but we’ll manage. We’ll be waiting at home, buddy. Tell Daddy I love him okay?”

“Okay. Bye, Mom.”

Yeah. As good as the trip had been, home sounded pretty damn good right about then.

 

_________________________________

 

It was late Saturday night when Roman heard the garage door open. Lily was dozing on the couch. Seth was sound asleep draped across her lap.

“Mom?” Roman nudged Lily awake, and then they heard a door slam.

“Oh! Seth? Wake up, bub. They’re home.”

Seth’s eyes flew open.

“Dad! Dean!” The youngest Girardi brother was off the sofa like a shot. He flung himself at his brother.

Roman couldn’t move as quickly, but he slowly stood from where he’d been sitting and made his way to his dad. Tony hugged him tight.

“You doing okay, son?” He asked softly. Roman nodded.

“I wasn’t. But Mom and Seth and Meg have helped,” he replied.

“Glad to hear it,” Tony responded, hugging Roman again.

Lily was fussing over Dean.

“Oh, sweetness. I can’t wait to see all the pictures you took.”

“Tomorrow, Mama. There are lots but I’m so sleepy…”

“Why don’t you both go take showers, and then to bed with you,” Lily motioned to Dean and Tony. "Tomorrow this family is hanging out together."

And they did.

The next morning, Roman sat at the kitchen table watching Lily and Seth fix breakfast. Dean and Dad were still asleep, but the grand plan for the day consisted of the five of them hanging out in Lily and Tony’s California King bed, talking, watching movies, and just generally catching up. It was raining hard outside, which definitely made the mood perfect for lounging around. Breakfast in bed sounded just fine to Roman.

Lily was talking Seth through mixing up waffle batter while she laid bacon strips on a cookie sheet. Then she began cracking eggs into a bowl. She whipped them up, added a little milk, salt, and pepper, and soon had a big pan of scrambled eggs going as well.

“Mom?” Roman asked suddenly.

“Yeah, kiddo?”

“Will you teach me how to cook?”

Lily set her eggs down.

“You want to learn to cook?” Roman’s mother seemed surprised.

“Yes. I want to make dinner for Megan sometime.”

“Ahh. I see. Well, yeah. I can teach you a few basics. What kind of food does she like?”

“I guess most everything. We haven’t really discussed it but she loved the Italian food and she likes Mexican...I don’t think she really likes fish, though.”

“Well, I’ll give you a few cooking lessons this week and maybe by the weekend you could invite her over and cook her a meal. That would be sweet.”

Roman smiled shyly.

“I really like her, Mom.”

“I know you do, kiddo. Know what? I really like her too.”

 

____________________________________

 

It was fun for Seth to listen to his mom and brother talk about Roman’s girlfriend. He seemed so happy. Actually, Seth felt like over the first half of the break, Roman
had been improving overall quite a bit. He had one migraine, but he took some meds and their mom had made the room dark and had him lay down with a cold cloth over his eyes. He said afterwards that while it still hurt (about a 7), it was definitely better than it had been.

A few days after Dean and Tony came back, the three boys sat around the kitchen table, eating cereal and lamenting.

“Sometimes, I wish we were younger again,” said Seth with a sigh.

“I know,” Roman agreed.

“I wish we weren’t so grown up and handsome,” declared Dean, knowing full well that that would get their mother’s attention.

“I wish all of those things too,” Lily interjected. “But that seems like an odd thing for three teenage boys to wish for. What’s the meaning of this, fellas?”

“We’re too old for Halloween, Mom,” Dean informed her with a deep sigh.

“Says who?” Lily shot back.

“We’re too old for Trick or Treating. No one our age does that,” said Seth.

Lily thought for a moment.

“Well, okay, so maybe you’re too grown up for that, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun.”

“How?”

“Well, the community center always needs volunteers and Trunk or Treat is almost here…” All three boys lit up.

The community center was open to all kids from all walks of life. It they incurred expenses from taking classes, their parents paid. If they wanted to take a class or two and their parents couldn’t pay, there were scholarships available. This was how Dean came to be allowed to go in the beginning; no way would Shelby ever pay for him to do that, but since it was free…

Every Halloween, the center put on Trunk or Treat. Volunteers would park their cars in the parking lot, decorate the back of them, and hand out candy to the younger kids. They’d gone one year when the boys had been much younger. The trio knew where their mother was headed with this.

“You know...that could be kind of fun…” Roman mused. “We could take the Jeep, decorate it, and dress up in a theme of some sort...what do you think, guys?”

“I think it sounds fun,” said Seth.

“You know I’m in!” Dean was clearly excited.

“Okay, then. So what do we want to do?”

“What if we...dress like superheroes?” Seth suggested.

“Every 6-year-old there will be a superhero,” Dean muttered.

“Well maybe, but if this is for kids, it’s not like we can do anything super scary…” Seth pointed out.

“True.”

“But we don’t have to wienie it up.”

“Do we have to do a theme? We could all just dress up as what we want.” Roman said.

“It’d be more fun to do a theme,” Seth replied. “But I don’t know what we’d do…”

“All the good stuff I can think of requires 4 people,” Dean agreed.

“You COULD always ask your father…” Lily threw that out there and all three boys grinned.

“Think he would?” Roman asked.

“Oh, he totally would,” Dean answered.

“Then what will we be?” Seth persisted.

 

__________________________________

 

They ended up going as the Ghostbusters. Tony was thrilled to join them. They decorated the Jeep as Ecto-1. They even dressed Honey Badger up as Slimer and brought her along. She spent the evening lying beside Roman, and the kids absolutely loved her. Tony was told repeatedly how generous it was of his teenagers to donate their time to making the holiday of the children milling around.

The morning after Halloween was a Saturday, and the weather was nice and cool, in the mid-50’s. After breakfast, the family took a long walk around one of the trails on their property. The leaves were just beginning to change, a process which, in Houston, didn’t take very long. Lily and Tony were holding hands, and Dean had his camera. He didn’t go anywhere without it anymore. It was fun, Tony thought, to watch him lock in on something he wanted to take a picture of, find the angle he wanted, take the pic, and then examine it with a critical eye on the camera’s LCD screen. His attention to detail was incredible.

He hadn’t made the basketball team, and Tony knew he was disappointed, eventhough he’d tried to act as though it didn’t matter. The coaches told him that he was
a really good player, but there were a lot of really good players that year, and since they had to make some tough choices, they were going to opt for some more experienced players. Dean brushed it off, but Tony had seen his tearfilled eyes as he asked to be excused from the dinner table that night. He also didn’t miss that Lily came to bed late. He knew she’d been comforting their boy.

So when Tony happened across the flyer for a photography contest while out shopping with Lily one day, he knew he had to show his son.

“I really think you should do this, buddy,” Tony explained when he showed the contest to Dean. “The winner gets a new lens for their camera.”

“Why should I bother?” Dean asked dully. “It’s not like I’ll win.”

“Well, not with that attitude, you won’t,” Tony replied. “But the only person who’s guaranteed to lose is the one who doesn’t play.”

Dean heaved a massive sigh.

“Well...say I do enter. What picture would I even submit?”

“Hmm...well, you’ve taken hundreds of great ones. And you could always shoot something new if you want.”

“I don’t know, Dad. The best ones are the ones that just happen. I don’t know if I can just go shoot something and have it be good enough for a contest.”

“Okay...well, why don’t you and I go for a walk and just see what inspiration strikes you?”

Dean smiled, just a little.

“Yeah. Okay.”

Tony and Dean spent a few hours walking around the east side of the property, and occasionally Dean would find something that intrigued him to take a picture of, and then they walked down to the dock because, Dean explained, “that’s the best place to go to aim for the horses.”

Dean seemed to feel considerably better after awhile, and as it began to get dark, he walked with his dad back towards the house. They were talking and laughing, and so engrossed in their own conversation that neither of them noticed the man standing in the trees on the other side of the pond, watching their every move.

Chapter Text

Dean was just trying to get by.

It was two weeks after Halloween, several days after he was rejected by the basketball team, and it was bothering him more than he knew it should. Which, to tell the truth, is what pissed him off the most. HE wasn’t supposed to care about that shit. Since when did he care about that shit like that? Let Seth be devastated over the rejection; when had he gotten so soft?

He really did want to enter the photography contest, but the deadline for that was looming and Dean still didn’t have anything he felt was good enough to enter. And really, what was the point of doing it if he was just going to lose? Still...he wanted a lens. His camera was wonderful, but he knew that you could get all kinds of fun stuff to make it even better---he’d been researching---and he knew exactly what he wanted. A macro. Those things could see stuff super close and still get the detail from even the tiniest of objects. He kind of thought it would be really cool to go out to Galveston and try some beach pictures. Not that he could win.

He was feeling sorry for himself and he knew it, and he hated it, but he couldn’t help it. His parents, as always, treated him gently, with courtesy and respect, but he could tell that even they were beginning to get a little impatient with his wallowing. And then, he got a wake up call.

Roman had been improving little by little; it seemed he was a little better each day. He was mostly his old self, aside from the occasional time when he would disappear behind a wall of despair, but usually, his brothers could cheer him up. He was still plagued with migraines too, usually when he pushed himself too hard, which was exactly what he was doing one Friday afternoon. He’d been told by his doctor that he could start lifting weights up to 20 pounds, so after school that day, he’d gotten them out.

Dean could tell his brother was frustrated as he watched Roman struggle to lift; it had been so long now that he could barely get the weights up, and he was used to benching his own weight effortlessly. But he didn’t give up. Seth came into basement shortly thereafter to watch, and Dean could tell by his eyes that he was concerned too. Sweat was pouring off Roman’s face at this point. His face was hard and cold and determined.

“Rome?” Dean asked quietly, trying to break Roman free from the trance he seemed to be in. Roman didn’t even look up.

A few more minutes passed, and Dean could tell that his brother was starting to feel weak, but still, he wouldn’t stop. His eyes were glazed and his lips were trembling. He looked absolutely terrible. Dean and Seth exchanged a look.

“I’m going to go get Mom,” said Seth softly. Dean nodded.

“Roman? It’s time to stop,” Dean moved a little closer to his brother; Roman still seemed oblvious to Dean’s presence.

“Hey. Rome? ROMAN.” Roman began shaking his head, but still didn’t say a word.

“Come on, Rome. Let’s take a break. You want a drink?” Roman shook his head harder.

“You gotta stop, Rome,” Dean murmured softly, reaching out and gently prying one of the weights out of Roman’s hand.

“STOP.” Roman grunted out then, snatching his hand away from Dean’s touch. “Don’t. Touch. Me.” Something inside of Dean wrenched loose right then, as it hit him like a ton of bricks---he had nothing to be upset about. So what if he didn’t make basketball? He was healthy and he was LUCKY.

“Ro,” came Mom’s voice, and Dean sighed with relief; both of his parents had descended from upstairs. Tears were mixed with the sweat running down Roman’s face now. Their dad wordlessly took the other weight from him and he collapsed into their mother’s waiting arms.

“Oh, baby,” Lily soothed, stroking Roman’s cheek.

“I just want my life back,” he moaned against her, and she murmured her understanding. Dean crawled closer, into his mother’s arm, and rested his head on Roman’s side. He could feel Lily start to run her fingers through his hair too. Then Dad and Seth joined the family cocoon around Roman. It was a closeness that Dean couldn’t describe, and it gave him an idea.

The next morning, Dean approached Roman. Last night their father had helped him to the shower, and then they’d eaten as a family around the kitchen table as they normally did, and Roman was clearly feeling better. Dean had listened during the nights for sounds of distress coming from his brother, and had heard nothing, so he was left to assume that Roman had slept well, too.

“Rome?”

“Yeah?” Roman was curled up on the couch under his 49ers blanket.

“How do you feel today?” Dean asked him, perching himself at the end of the sofa.

“Better. A little sore,” Roman replied. “Dean? Thank you for helping me yesterday. For getting Mom and Dad.”

Well, that was awkward. He knew Roman wasn’t mad at him or anything but he didn’t expect him to be actually appreciative either.

“You’d do it for me,” was all Dean could say to that. “But I had an idea and I wanted to ask you about it.”

“What’s that?” Roman sat up and pulled his blanket tighter around himself, but he was looking into Dean’s face. Dean realized with a start that it had been awhile
since Roman had looked him in the eyes; maybe he really WAS getting better.

“Well...I was thinking about how hard you’ve been working to get better,” Dean began. “And I think it would really inspire a lot of people to know that even though it’s been HARD, you’re still DOING it. So I was wondering...if...I could maybe take some pictures of you as you get better?”

“Like...what kind of pictures?” Roman asked.

“Just like...pictures of you lifting weights and adding things back to your routine and stuff. I don’t really know for sure; I’ve only just had the idea. But I want to call it the Roman Recovery Series. Is...is it okay?”

Roman thought hard for a moment before looking back at Dean.

“Yeah. It’s okay. I just want to see everything before you show anyone else. Fair?”

“Fair!” Dean was happy with that.

 

______________________________

 

Seth wanted a change, and he wanted it bad.

He was beginning to realize something: at home he may stand out because he was the baby, but at school, nothing separated him from anyone else. Roman was a star football player and was cut like a God besides. Plus, he had a reputation for being a great coach and mentor. Everyone knew him. Girls wanted to date him and guys wanted to be like him, and the worse part was, Roman didn’t even seem to notice.

Then there was Dean. His reputation was very different---he was tough and rugged, smart but guarded, and since he had started getting into art, people had really begun to notice him.

All anyone knew about Seth was that he was Roman and Dean’s brother.

Of course, he’d wanted it that way at first; life was so much easier when no one noticed you and just let you pass by. But he was different now; his confidence had grown by leaps and bounds in the past years, and he WANTED to stand out. He just wasn’t sure the best way to do it.

This was a hard school with high academic standards, but being smart and getting the kind of grades he got wasn’t going to cut it, although he did sign up to be a tutor. Seth wanted something more than that, though.

He’d considered trying out for basketball himself, actually, but he didn’t.

It wasn’t fear of rejection that stopped him, either. It was fear that he would make the team and Dean wouldn’t. Seth knew that’d be a tough pill to swallow for Dean, and he didn’t love playing so much that it was worth causing friction between him and his brother, so he let it go.

He wanted to do something big, though. Something to make him a commodity. That was it. He wanted people to want him. He wanted to be popular. He wanted to be something other than “the youngest Girardi.”

Then he had an idea.

Two weeks before the Thanksgiving break, Seth cornered Roman.

“Hey---will you help me with something?” Seth asked, holding up a small box.

“Well...I’ve never done that before…” Roman began, but he took the box from Seth’s hands and looked at it. “What’ll you do if it doesn’t turn out?”

“I’ll worry about that later, IF it happens. I just...I want a different look. I want to stand out a little. Please?”

Roman sighed.

“Okay. But you know Mom is probably going to kill you.”

It was a risk Seth was willing to take.

An hour later, they were finished and Seth stared at himself in the mirror. It had turned out EXACTLY the way he’d envisioned.

“Thanks, Roman!” Seth said excitedly, as he and his brother exited the bathroom and bumped directly into Dean. His brother stared at him.

Roughly a third of Seth’s dark brown curly hair was now bleached blond. After a moment, Dean grinned.

“You know Mom’s gonna kill you right?”

“Mom doesn’t believe in killing,” Seth responded, though to be honest, he wasn’t sure HOW she would react.

Luckily, she didn’t seem to mind.

“That’s an interesting look, bub,” Lily said when she saw it. “What made you decide on that?”

“I don’t know. I just wanted something new,” Seth replied. “Something people will notice.”

“Well, people are definitely going to notice this,” his mama replied, smiling at her youngest.

“Mom?” Seth said.

“Yeah?”

“I think I want to try out for the wrestling team.”

 

______________________________

 

Roman knew their mother wouldn’t REALLY object to Seth’s new hairstyle nearly as much as she’d be concerned about him going out for wrestling. She was already fixing up one son with a head injury, and she had a tendency to want to baby Seth anyway, even though he hated it.

He opted to stay out of things though, so when Megan called to see if he wanted to go to the movies, he agreed. It was the first time he’d gone to the theater since he’d been hurt, and while lots of people in an enclosed space could spell trouble, he knew he’d probably be okay.

Megan was aware of this anyway, and she led him up to the top row of the theater, away from most of the other patrons. They shared a huge bucket of popcorn and a massive cup of Mr. Pibb, and settled in to watch Sinister.

Roman quickly learned that aside from being away from other people, there were several benefits to sitting at the top of the theater while watching a scary movie with his girlfriend.

He could easily wrap his arm around her, for one. For another, every time the movie got scary, Megan pressed her face against his chest. It made him feel strong and protective; like she trusted him to make it better. So he did---about the fifth time she hid her face, he tenderly took her chin and guided her up into a kiss.

This was a real kiss, not just a peck, and soon enough, they were making out. Roman loved kissing and touching Megan; he was never inappropriate because he was a gentleman and she was a lady and besides, neither of them was ready for THAT. But his favorite part was resting his hand on her cheek as they kissed; he loved being close to her. And as their lips became more demanding, something bubbled up out of Roman that even he didn’t see coming.

“I...love you.”

The words came out suddenly and for a half second he regretted it, because what if she didn’t feel the same? But then their eyes met and the second he looked into her deep green orbs, he knew. There was no need to worry; she felt the same way too. And then she said so.

“I love you too,” she whispered.

After Megan dropped Roman off at home, he felt like he was floating. He bumped into Tony on his way in.

“Hey, Dad,” he said airily.

“Hey, son,” Tony replied. “How was your date?”

“Amazing,” Roman smiled the dorkiest smile ever.

“Yeah? What did you two crazy kids do?”

“We...Dad...it was so incredible…”

“Roman? Do I need to get you guys some protection or something?”

Roman looked over at him.

“No. No, not THAT, Dad. I just...neither of us is ready for sex. But...I told her I love her.”

Tony’s expression softened, and he smiled gently.

“You did? What was her reaction?”

“She said she loves me too,” Roman whispered.

Tony’s smile grew.

“Oh...son. I’m happy for you, Roman. Your first love is a wonderful thing.” Roman’s father reached out and patted his shoulder.

“Dad? Do you think highschool sweethearts can make it? ‘Cuz right now I feel like planning my whole future around her.” Roman revealed.

“Well...at 16 I don’t know that I’d plan my entire future around any one person or thing, but to answer your question, yes. I do think high school sweethearts can make it. Look at Uncle Tom and Uncle Joe. Both of them began dating their wives in high school and both couples have been together over 30 years.”

Roman smiled.

“I really think I love her, Dad. I honestly do.”

Tony smiled again.

“Good. She’s a good girl; you’re good for each other. Mom and I like her too.”

“So what’s going on around here tonight?”

“Well...Dean’s pissed that we’re not going to New York for Thanksgiving.” Tony replied.

“Oh...did you guys have a fight?” Roman asked.

“Not a fight. He’s just...disappointed, you know? And he’s nervous about the photo contest and I think he’s still a bit down about basketball. This was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

“I’ll talk to him tomorrow,” Roman said. “Maybe it’ll help?”

“Yeah...you’re the best big brother, bud,” Dad said.

The next morning when Roman woke up, Seth was still asleep but Mom, Dad, and Dean were gone. There was a note on the kitchen counter in Lily’s handwriting that said, “went for a walk. Back in a bit.”

Figuring his parents had taken Dean out to talk to him some more, Roman poured a bowl of cereal and was about to head to the living room to fire up Madden when the phone rang.

All of them had cell phones, but Lily wasn’t willing to give up the landline. They lived pretty far out, and she was afraid if there was an emergency, an ambulance wouldn’t be able to find them. So while phone calls on it were usually telemarketers, Roman answered it anyway.

“Hello?” He said.

“Looking for Dean,” came the unfamiliar reply. “Dean Ambrose.”

This gave Roman pause. His brother hadn’t be “Dean Ambrose” in over a year, so whoever this was couldn’t know him that well.

“He...I’m sorry, but there’s no Dean Ambrose living here,” Roman replied, figuring this was the safest answer.

The man on the phone became agitated immediately.

“Look...kid. I know he lives there, alright? I just want to talk to him. Where is he?” The man’s reply was sharp.

“No, you’re wrong. There is no Dean Ambrose here,” Roman said firmly, and then he hung up.

How strange, Roman thought, as he picked up his cereal and headed off to the living room.

Chapter Text

The worst day of Lily Girardi’s life began innocently enough.

It was Black Friday, which possibly should’ve been a clue, and the boys were still off school for Thanksgiving break. Lily herself had had a small break; she hadn't worked since Tuesday afternoon, and she’d had a great time relaxing for a few days with her boys and Tony.

They had a whole Thanksgiving dinner: turkey, ham, stuffing, cranberry salad, green bean casserole, vegetable casserole, gravy, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie, Nutella cheesecake, and a trifle. Lily had never cooked a Thanksgiving feast for her family before, but everyone had pitched in the day before and it had all turned out really good. The boys had gone to bed stuffed and happy, and she and Tony had stayed up and discussed Christmas and Dean’s upcoming birthday before retiring for the night.

Now, she was considering braving the crowds in the stores. Tony wanted a new big screen, Seth was hoping for a laser printer for Christmas, and he’d also expressed interest in a Sphero, and she knew Roman wanted some Bose headphones. She figured she could get reasonable deals on all of these things at Best Buy, even if they’d been open since midnight and it was now about 6:30. Figuring she could be gone and back before any of her sons woke up, she opted to go and treat herself to Starbucks on the way, and she figured everyone would probably still be asleep when she got back. She decided to check on her precious boys before she left.

Roman was sprawled out on his back, arms and legs everywhere, just a hint of a snore rising from his chest. His room felt cold to Lily, so she found his blankets and covered him gently. He mumbled in his sleep, and she ran her hand over his hair. Then he turned over onto his side and snuggled under the covers. Convinced he was comfy and cozy, she moved on to her baby.

Or not so much a baby anymore, Lily thought to herself, as she gazed down at Seth’s sleeping form. He was curled up under his blankets, never truly able to sleep unless he could be wrapped in a warm, safe cocoon. The blond patch in his hair and the bridge of his nose were all Lily could see of him, and she leaned down and kissed him quickly before stepping out and in to Dean’s room.

Dean was wide awake.

Lily wasn’t too surprised; he’d had a bit of a rough week. She knew he was sad that they didn’t go to New York.

“It doesn’t seem right to not go just because Papa is gone,” he’d whispered into his mother’s neck, and she had hugged him tight.

“Oh, sweetie...that’s not it,” Lily had replied. “Daddy and I just thought...we aren’t sure flying is the best thing for Roman yet; Dr. Gartland recommended we wait a little while, so we are. And we figured it’d be fun to do Thanksgiving just us 5; that’s never happened yet since Roman came home.”

Dean had nodded, but Lily knew how much he missed his Papa, and it made her sad. So when she found him awake that Friday morning, while it didn’t surprise her, it did make her heart ache. She crawled into Dean’s bed and wrapped her arm around him.

“Can’t sleep?” Lily whispered.

Dean shook his head.

“Wanna get up and go shopping with me?”

Dean turned so he could see her face.

“Where?”

“Best Buy. I want to see if there are any Black Friday specials that we can’t live without. And, you know, my sweetie’s been feeling down lately, so I wondered if maybe something like a new video game might help?”

Dean smiled then.

“It...might be worth a try,” he said.

They had fun, Lily and her middle son. Though Dean had never been a fan of coffee, he did love a nice, sweet, creamy white mocha. They found everything Lily’d been looking for, including a couple of new video games for Dean, and then they stopped at the camera section, where Dean gazed longingly at the vast array of accessories. All of which happened to be on sale for Black Friday. He looked at his mother, pleading with his eyes.

“What have you got your eye on?” Lily asked him softly.

“The wide angle lens and the external flash,” Dean replied, just as softly.

“Okay. But I get to decide whether they’re for Christmas or your birthday. And you better act surprised.” Dean threw his arms around his mother and squeezed. Lily snuck a camera bag into the cart too, when he wasn’t looking.

Upon their return home, as predicted, Roman and Seth were still asleep so Dean helped Lily hide the gifts in her closet, and then went to lay down himself. Half an hour later, Lily looked in on him and he was sound asleep. She planted a kiss on his forehead and covered him up.

Shortly after, that’s when the day began to go south. Roman woke up extremely disoriented, something that hadn’t happened in nearly two months. He knew who he was and where he was, but he was so incredibly sluggish; he begged for water, so they gave him small sips, and then he tried to get up on his own but immediately slid down to the floor. He couldn’t seem to get his legs under him. When he tried to lay on Tony and go back to sleep, Lily knew he needed to get checked out. Tony called Dr. Gartland, who said it was probably just a side effect but told them to meet him in ER anyway. They agreed that Tony would go while Lily stayed behind.

She was worried about her oldest, and she knew she was feeling a little testy, so when Dean and Seth woke up an hour later and immediately began arguing about who got the last bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, she was possibly a bit more cranky than necessary when she handed them a box of Cheerios and told them it was that or nothing. Seth looked stunned. Dean looked wounded. Lily decided to take a shower.

When she got out, she had a text from Tony.

Roman pepped up big time on the way to the hospital, but they’re doing a CT scan anyway. I’ll keep you posted.

Lily heaved a sigh of relief; this was great news. With any head injury there was almost always regression; any number of things could cause Roman to wake up the way he
had and nearly all of them would be no big deal in the end. She wrapped her hair in a towel and went out to tell Dean and Seth that it looked like Roman was doing better, only to find them arguing again.

This time, it was over who got to play which character on Halo.

Seriously, guys? Lily wanted to shout. Instead she sat down on the sofa between them.

“Okay. What’s going on? You two don’t act like this,” Lily said as calmly as she could.

“I don’t know; Dean’s being a giant JERK,” Seth snapped, pulling away from his mother’s arm.

“Seth, he’s worried about Roman just like you are,” Lily began, but Dean interrupted.

“I’m not worried. Roman’s fine.”

“He might not be; you don’t know!” Seth’s face was red; Lily could see that he was angry. She reached for him again, and this time, although he stiffened, he didn’t pull away.

“Seth. Baby. Breathe,” she instructed him. “I know we’re all a little tense---I am too, I know---but in this case, Dean’s right. Dad texted me and it looks like Roman’s okay. They’re just running some tests to be sure.”

It was like someone pulled the plug on Seth; he practically deflated and sagged against her.

“I’m scared, Mom,” he whispered.

“I know,” she replied. Lily turned to Dean.

“And you can be scared, too; it’s okay. You don’t have to be so strong all the time---”

“Look. I said I’m not worried and I’m not,” Dean muttered.

“Okay. That’s okay too,” Lily replied, patting Dean’s knee.

“Roman just ruins everything,” Dean said to his feet, so low that Lily almost didn’t hear him, though Seth sure did. He jumped to his feet.

“That was a crappy thing to say,” Seth accused.

“Guys---” Lily began.

“Well, it’s true,” Dean jumped to his feet as well. It looked for a moment as though they might start hitting each other.

“It’s because of Roman that we’re not in New York right now visiting Nonna, and it’s because of Roman that we’re sitting here arguing,” Dean’s face was red too, now.

“No, THAT’s because you’re a world class dick,” Seth retorted. Lily stood up between them.

“GUYS. LISTEN.” She knew her tone was sharp.

“I know. I know we’re stressed. I think we need to just take a step back---”

“I’m going out to ride my bike,” Dean interrupted, turning and stalking towards the kitchen.

“Not until you talk to me about---” Lily began again, but Dean paid her no mind. He just grabbed his helmet from the laundry room and stormed out of the house.
Lily sighed.

She managed to talk Seth down over a lunch of leftover turkey on an open faced sandwich that was drowning in gravy.

“Bub. I know your brother made you angry, but who controls Seth’s actions and words?”

“I do. But Dean has to control himself too---”

“I’m not saying he was right, Seth. He shouldn’t have been rude to you. But you’re both concerned about your brother; I know he is even if he says he’s not. He’s not as good at talking about things. You know that. I don’t absolve him, bub. But you’re both guilty here, and I think when your brother gets back, you need to sit down and apologize.”

Seth was clearly calmer now, and he nodded his head.

“Okay. I’ll tell him. I didn’t mean to get so angry; I just am worried.”

“I know. Me too. But Roman will be fine. He and Daddy will be home any minute. Thank you, Seth, for being the mature one and discussing this with Dean.

Only, Dean didn’t come back.

At 3:30, Tony and Roman returned; by then Dean had been gone a little over two hours, but Lily wasn’t worried. It wasn’t unusual for him to grab his camera and head off around the property; it had been awhile since he’d gone out on his dirt bike, but that was his old standby before he discovered photography. Roman was definitely looking and acting better; Lily tucked him in to a cozy bed of pillows and blankets on the couch and Seth joined him and they watched a movie until Roman fell asleep.

By 5, it was getting dark and Dean still wasn’t back. Lily had already explained the events of the afternoon to Tony, who decided to go out on the golf cart and see if he could find their son. Dean had been mad, sure, but it wasn’t like him to stay gone for so long. An hour after Tony left, Lily decided to go out and look on foot, so she told Seth to stay put with Roman and she left with Gator in tow. She felt like she walked for hours, calling Dean’s name, and getting absolutely no response. Then she saw something.

Dean’s Bengals hat was on the ground, squished and muddy. Lily felt panic rise up in her chest; he’d been wearing this when he left. He’d have taken it off, she reasoned, to put on his bike helmet, but then how had it gotten all the way out here? She noticed then that there were tire tracks in the mud so she decided to follow them. She only made it about 300 yards, though, when she heard Tony coming from the opposite direction and when he came into view, what she saw made her heart skip a beat.

Dean’s bike was in the back of the cart, but there was no sign of Dean.

“Tony,” Lily was panicking again. Her heart began to pound. “Tony, where is he?”

“I don’t know,” Tony’s face was pale and his voice was just a whisper. “I found his bike but...he was nowhere near it. Lu…”

“Where is he?” Lily repeated; this had to be a bad joke. She was gonna kill that kid when she found him; that much was sure.

“Lu...I don’t know. I don’t think...he wouldn’t leave his bike.”

Tears filled Lily’s eyes.

“I didn’t see any sign of him though...if he fell and got hurt, he couldn’t have gotten far. Lu...I don’t know where he is.”

A strangled cry made its way out of Lily’s throat as their eyes met and she realized what Tony was saying.

Their baby was gone.

Chapter Text

Seth looked up as his mother flew into the house, grabbing her phone as she went. His blood ran cold when he heard her side of the conversation.

“We can’t find our son. He’s missing. He’s 15 years old...please, send help.”

Seth inhaled sharply, and Roman tried to get to his feet but fell back to the sofa.

“What do you mean, you can’t find Dean?” Seth demanded, but one look from his mother silenced him.

“He’s about 6 feet tall...blue eyes, dark blond hair, kind of red if the light hits it just right...okay. Okay, thank you.” Lily set her phone down and slowly turned to face Roman and Seth.

“Mom? What’s going on?” Roman asked fearfully.

“We can’t find him,” Lily whispered.

“You can’t find him?” Seth was trying to understand.

“We can’t find him,” Lily repeated. “Oh, God…”

“Mom, he’s probably just out on the property somewhere,” Roman began, but Lily shook her head.

“No, no, no, Daddy found his bike. He found Dean’s bike.”

Seth had honestly never seen real terror in his mother’s eyes before, but that’s the best word he had for what he was seeing right now. And he understood; Dean must be out there hurt. He’d never leave his bike.

“Was the bike okay? I mean did it look like it had been in an accident or anything?” Seth demanded. His mother shook her head.

“Okay. I’m going to go look for him,” Seth said. Lily shook her head again.

“No, Mama, listen. The police are coming, right?” Lily nodded.

“Then you wait here with Roman and talk to them. I’ll help Dad look. I’ve got my phone. We’ll find him, Mom.”

Except they didn’t.

Seth felt like they searched for hours. Actually, they probably did. Before long, he could hear other voices hollering “Dean? Dean Girardi!” It sounded strange, like an echo or something. It wasn’t a happy sound. Before much longer, Seth felt his phone vibrate. It was Dad.

 Come on back, bub. We need to get together and regroup.

The hope that had begun to rise up in Seth was squandered immediately. They hadn’t found Dean. They were going to stop looking. Seth immediately shot a text back.

Not until we find him.

Almost immediately, his phone rang.

“Dad---” Seth started to say, started to beg, started to remind his father that Dean would never ever give up on him, so he couldn’t give up on Dean. But his father interrupted.

“Listen to me, buddy,” Tony sounded exhausted. “We need a plan. It’s cold. I’m not saying we’re going to stop looking. I’m just saying we need to regroup, figure out what’s what, and quit running in circles. Okay?”

With a sigh, Seth reluctantly agreed.

The house was swarming with police officers and, to his surprise, FBI agents. Seth didn’t know a whole lot about what his father did but as far as he was aware, a missing teenager wasn’t a job for the FBI. Dad must’ve called in some favors. It made Seth feel mildly better to know that so much manpower was there and looking for his older brother, but his relief was short lived when he got a look at his mom.

Lily was sitting on the couch holding Roman’s head in her lap, playing with his hair. Her eyes were swollen; she’d obviously been crying. But it wasn’t even that. The officer sitting across from her was asking her questions---no. He was interrogating her.

“He had a tumultuous childhood, correct?” The officer was clearly trying to pin this on Dean.

“Until he was 11. I’ve told you this already,” Lily sounded desperate and Seth’s heart sank.

“Mrs. Girardi…” The officer began again.

“DOCTOR Girardi,” Lily snapped, patience shot.

“Right. Dr. Girardi,” Seth detected a smirk on the man’s face. “Dr. Girardi, you know that statistically, children who have been abused are far more likely to become runaways---”

“And YOU know, because I’ve told you a hundred times, that my son would NOT just run away. You have NO IDEA what my boys have overcome; you have NO CLUE who they are and what they’ve done. He’s gone. He didn’t leave. I don’t know what happened but I know that MY Dean would never just try to leave. He needs help. You have to find him. You have to help me find my baby,” tears poured down Lily’s cheeks as she pleaded with the cop.

“Mrs.---Dr. Girardi. I want you to think very carefully for a moment,” Officer Dumbass began. “I want you to think about your son. You say he ran out of here after an argument with his brother?”

“Yes.” Lily shuddered. “My husband had to take our oldest to the emergency room and they were worried about him---” Officer Dumbass cut her off.

“Dean is very volatile, is he not?”

“Dean is---no. I don’t think---I mean he’s very intense, yes, but volatile isn’t the word I’d use---” Again, the cop interrupted his mother. Seth felt anger rising.

“He’s kind of a loose cannon, isn’t he?”

“No. I don’t think he’s a loose cannon at all.”

“He’s unpredictable,” the officer continued. “You never know what he might do next. Right?”

“He---he’s---NO!” Lily shouted. “I knew he’d be upset about his brother being sick; he struggles with his feelings sometimes but he’s---”

“He’s dangerous,” the officer supplied. “He could have hurt your other sons at any time. You never knew when he might fly off the handle.”

“WHAT? NO!” Lily shrieked.

“Face it, he’s a difficult child, Dr. Girardi,” Officer Dumbass went on.

“That doesn’t mean I don’t love him,” Lily retorted.

“But you still have to protect the other two. You love them too, don’t you?”

Lily and Seth realized what was happening at the exact same time. Seth leaped to his feet, ready to do something dramatic, but Lily held up her hand.

“Ohhhh…” she whispered. “I see. You think I hurt my baby.”

Seth had heard enough.

“DAD!” He yelled, and Tony came running.

“Seth? What’s wrong?”

“This jerk faced loser just---Daddy, he just accused Mom of hurting Dean,” Seth was practically in tears, all of the emotions beginning to catch up. “Tell him, Daddy. Tell him Mama would never hurt us. Any of us.”

“Seth,” Tony wrapped his arms around him, and he sagged against his father. “Of course Mama didn’t hurt Dean, buddy. Of course not. Just calm down.”

“NO! I can’t calm down! TELL HIM!” Seth knew he sounded hysterical. He didn’t care, though.

Officer Dumbass turned away from Lily, who looked completely spent.

“Mr. Girardi,” he began. “You know as well as anyone that the majority of the time, if a child is abducted---and in this case I think that’s a HUGE if---it’s by someone they know, and in a high percentage of those cases, it’s one of the parents. Or...or both.”

Tony didn’t let go of Seth, but he squared his shoulders and looked the officer directly in the eye. When he spoke, Seth shivered; he’d never heard his father’s voice so full of malice.

“Your job,” Tony said quietly, “is to find my boy. Not to come in here and throw accusations at my wife and upset my sons. Unless you’re planning on charging my wife with something, feel free to leave now. Or I’ll have your badge.”

Officer Dumbass stood up and met Tony’s gaze.

“My apologies,” he said, though he didn’t sound apologetic whatsoever. “We’re going to do what we can to find your son. Until then...don’t go anywhere.”

And with that, he left the room.

Seth was shaking violently now, and he felt like he might be sick. How anyone could think that his parents had done something to his brother was beyond him, but what if no one believed them? What if everyone blamed them? What if they went to jail? What would happen to him then?

He didn’t realize he was sobbing until he felt his father guide him into his mother’s arms, and then Tony sat down and wrapped his arms around all three of them.

“Bub. It’s okay, baby boy,” Lily murmured into Seth’s ear. “Dean’s out there somewhere. We’ll find him, bub. Don’t cry. We’re gonna find him.”

He wanted more than anything to believe her, but for the first time since Dean had disappeared out the door hours earlier, Seth was beginning to have his doubts.

 

______________________________

 

It was cold, and dark, and that’s about all Dean could tell you about where he was right then.

He had no idea what had happened.

One minute, he’d been speeding down one of the bike paths, furious with Seth but not really, really just terrified that something awful was going to happen to Roman.

The next minute, he was...here.

Here appeared to be nowhere, and Dean wondered if he was no one. Why did his head hurt?

He thought back. What the hell? For a fleeting moment he thought maybe he had it but then---nope. Nothing.

He couldn’t tell if he was alone or not. And although it was cold and damp, he was pretty sure he was indoors. It felt like Dean’s brain was pulsing, an incessant tempo that refused to slow. It occurred to him that it matched his heartbeat.

Dean didn’t feel scared, or even angry anymore. Actually, he didn’t feel much of anything except lost. WHERE was he? HOW did he get there?

He tried to flex his elbows and realized his joints felt stiff. God DAMN, his head hurt. He tried to sit up, and yeah. Even more stiff. He could do it; nothing seemed to be restraining him. Dean didn’t understand, though, why his body was so sore. He must have wrecked his bike. Yeah...that had to be it. He’d wrecked his bike and hit his head, and now he must be at the hospital and he was probably hallucinating. It didn’t smell like a hospital, nor had he ever been required to sleep on a hospital floor, but if he’d hit his head hard enough, he knew his mind could conjure up crazy things.

Dean couldn’t tell if his eyes were open or not, but he opted to lay back down anyway. He was so very tired, and so, so cold, and he thought if he could just sleep, maybe when he woke up things would seem more clear.

Because in his mind, he knew damn well he wasn’t in any hospital.

And he didn’t want to think about where he might be really.

When he woke up again, he was even more confused and sore than he had been before. Dean tried to stretch his legs, but they wouldn’t go very far. It wasn’t like he was tied up, though. More like something was beside him, preventing him from moving very much. He wondered if he had room to stand, but he knew before even attempting it that even if there was enough space, he doubted he’d be physically able to get to his feet.

It was around then that Dean got this vague feeling that he should probably be afraid. He wasn’t afraid, though. This couldn’t be good; he knew this. Everything he knew told him he should be panicking right now. So why wasn’t he? Dean didn’t know, but he curled up where he was and rested his head on his arm and within moments, he was asleep again.

 

______________________________

 

Tony gathered every flashlight he could find and put Seth in the golf cart with him; they were going to at least give it one more look. Their 100 acres of land could take days to scour completely, but by God, one way or another he was going to find his son.

He knew, was plagued with a certainty bigger than himself, that Dean hadn’t just run off on his family, but aside from that he didn’t have a logical explanation. Maybe Dean had fallen off his bike, but the complete lack of damage to the thing indicated otherwise. Maybe Dean had taken most of the brunt of it. Tony didn’t love this idea either, especially with it growing colder by the minute. It still seemed better than the other option though. Dean wouldn’t---couldn’t---just walk away from this family.

Seth was still understandably distraught, but he was doing his best to hold himself together. Lily hadn’t been thrilled that he and Tony were going back out, but Tony knew Seth needed to feel like he was doing...SOMETHING. And he knew the feeling. So he made sure Seth was bundled in sweatpants and a hoodie off they went. Lily stayed back with Roman, who’d fallen asleep, likely due to all of the stress of...everything. She’d been cradling his upper body in his arms, stroking his hair, letting the tears fall. Tony had never seen her more scared.

As bad is it had been to lose the twins years before, this was 100 times worse.

Pete Cimino, an agent who was also one of Tony’s closest friends, had stayed behind at the house with a few others to ask Lily a few more questions, but Tony knew he’d be gentle. They had to be careful; local police didn’t care for the Feds meddling uninvited, and this was technically not something the FBI would handle. But this was Tony’s son, dammit, and he was going to accept as much help as he could get. The more bodies out searching the woods, the better.

The lake was a nagging thought in the back of Tony’s mind. It was too cold for Dean to attempt to swim, and Dean knew that it was off limits to go into the lake alone. But if Dean had been in such a mindset that he just didn’t care...no. Tony wouldn’t go there; that would only make things worse. Dean was out there somewhere, and they were going to find him. They had to.

 

____________________________

 

The next time Dean woke, he found his head wasn’t pounding so hard anymore, so he tried to sit up.

A small wave of dizziness washed over him, but he didn’t have to lay back down, which was good. He sat there for long moments, taking deep, slow breaths. Where was he? Where were his parents? This was DEFINITELY no place that he was familiar with. It was still dark and damp, and it smelled of something vaguely familiar but Dean couldn’t quite place it. He leaned back against a wall and waited for his eyes to adjust. It didn’t take long before he could make out the outline of a door. He looked to his left and then to his right.

To the left, there was a large dark mass of something, a boiler maybe, or a large water heater. To the right there was another wall. He seemed to be in a corner. The hell? The door looked to be about 10 feet or so across the room. So the room, he surmised, probably wasn’t that big. He also could tell that he was in there alone.

But what was he DOING there? No matter how many details he managed to put into place, that was the one he couldn’t figure out, and it was a biggie. Dean decided he could stand, and he slowly got to his feet.

He was able to stand up straight, and although he could see he had a clear view of the door, he instinctively held his hands out anyway to keep from bumping into something. Tentative feet moved slowly forward, but there didn’t seem to be anything obstructing his path. Dean moved sloth-like, partially because he was still a little dizzy, and partially because the truth was, he wasn’t 100% sure that he WANTED to know what was on the other side of that door. He was grappling with himself, actually. He still had no clue what had happened, but the scenarios running through his head were frightening.

Of course, there was always the possibility that he HAD injured himself on his bike and been found by some poor person who didn’t have a bed, so they put him on the floor in the corner of the boiler room. But being kidnapped by aliens seemed more feasible than that.

After what seemed like an eternity, Dean reached the door and slowly, slowly rested his hand on the knob and turned.

It was locked.

He was locked in.

Finally, real, unadulterated fear began to settle over him, and then panic set in.

“Hello?” Dean called, knowing how terrified he sounded but not really caring. There was no response.

“Please?” He rattled the knob a little. “Is anyone out there?”

Again, no response, and Dean began to tremble. What was going on? He was locked in a room, an unfamiliar room, by someone he did not know. No way was this going to end well. Dean felt tears spring to his eyes, but he shook on the doorknob again.

“Let me out! Please, let me out!”

And then he heard something. It sounded like heavy footsteps, like the person doing the stepping was wearing clunky work boots. He felt the steps stop, and then all of a sudden, someone was pounding on the door from the other side, shaking it from its very foundation. With a shriek, Dean retreated back to his corner.

The door slowly creaked open, and light flooded the room. After being in the dark for so long, it hurt Dean’s eyes, and he covered them with his hands. The person in the doorway slowly ambled in Dean’s direction, and Dean squeaked in fear. Then he heard an unfamiliar voice.

“Well, well, well. Look who’s awake.”

Chapter Text

Dean started to tremble. He couldn’t get a clear look at the man standing in front of him, but he knew he had never heard that voice before. It was rough and cold, deep. Roman’s voice was deep too, but his was caring and warm.

“What...why am I here?” Dean whispered.

“Get up,” was the man’s only response. When Dean didn’t immediately comply, the man stormed over and pulled Dean to his feet by his hair. A sharp cry left Dean’s lips, but then anger surged through him. Who was this, and why did he think he could treat Dean this way?

He made an attempt to slap the man’s arm away, but that was a mistake. He just gripped Dean’s hair tighter. White hot pain seared through his head. He tried to wrench himself away, but that just made it all worse.

“You’d better fucking quit,” the man said.

“Leave me alone!” Dean begged. “My parents have money; they’ll give you anything you want, I swear, just please let me go.”

The man laughed. It was a bitter sound, like the gag at the back of someone’s throat when they vomited. It made Dean cringe.

“Yeah...they sure do have money,” the man spat. “If I’d known just how rich those bitches are, I’d have come for you a lot sooner.”

“They aren’t bitches!” Anger surged through Dean again, and he attempted to struggle some more, but he was so weak and his head hurt and all he managed to do was slap the man, who growled and flung him to the ground. The next thing Dean knew, hard kicks were landing on his back.

“I told you to fucking QUIT IT,” the man roared. “You stupid piece of shit! You EVER do that again and you’re dead. Do you understand me? I’ll kill you and I won’t lose a second of sleep over it either. DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?”

He was irate, and the stomps just kept on coming, and Dean curled up into a ball, trying to deflect the blows. The pain was miserable, and he began to cry, which only served to make the man even angrier.

“SHUT UP!”

The rage was unfamiliar and awful; it had been so long since the last time Dean was treated this way, and he never thought he’d have to revisit this part of his life again. He cried harder, and still the man didn’t let up, and then out of nowhere, mercifully, there was a woman’s voice.

“Brad. BRAD. Knock it off!”

The man (Brad?) bore down on Dean, but he stopped kicking him. Dean just lay there curled up as tight as he could, shaking and sobbing. He coughed, and tasted something metallic. Blood. He was coughing up blood.

“He slapped me,” Brad muttered, still hovering over Dean’s prone body looking for all the world as though he could start beating on him again at any moment.

“So? He’s a fucking teenager, and you ain’t gonna get a dime for him if he’s dead, you idiot.”

Dean didn’t recognize her voice either.

Brad finally hoisted Dean up to his feet and dragged him back into the small room, and flung him into the corner. A moment later, the woman was kneeling by his side, wiping the blood off his face with a towel that smelled of sweat. Dean gagged.

“Hey, you little asshole, cut that out. I’m not gonna let him kill you, but I’m not cleaning up your puke either.”

“Please…” Dean managed to choke out. “Water. Please.”

“Get him some water, Brad,” the woman demanded, before turning back to him. “You better stop that little baby crying right now, or he’s gonna come after you again.”

“Please…” Dean moaned again, and the woman glared at him. His head was swimming so badly that he couldn’t even clearly see her face, and she was three feet away from him. He could make out dark hair and he didn’t THINK he knew who she was, but right then, he didn’t know anything anymore, except that he was going to die in this place, this miserable place.

“I can’t even believe I let you talk me into this,” the woman muttered as Brad came back into the room with Dixie cup of water. He handed it to her, and she tried to hand it to Dean, but his hands were shaking so hard that it began to slosh all over.

“Better not waste that. It’s all you’re getting tonight,” Brad snapped. He turned to the woman. “You know damn well why you let me talk you into this, Tina. You want to move out of this place and have a bunch of fancy shit, and you can’t do no better than me, so kidnap the kid it was.”

“Kidnap him and get ransom, asshole,” Tina retorted; she held the cup to Dean’s lips. “Beating him bloody all over my house wasn’t part of the damn plan.”

They were too busy arguing to notice that Dean had finished the water sank to the floor, still sobbing silently, eyes squeezed shut. That was, until Tina stood, slapped Brad, and stormed out of the room.

“I thought I told you to quit that pussy crying, boy,” Brad growled, staring down at Dean with a look of utter contempt on his face. “Those bitches who took you in sure as hell better make this worth my while. If they even WANT you back.”

Dean shuddered. Of COURSE his parents would want him back. They’d be out looking for him right now. His father, like a knight in shining armor, would storm into this awful place, probably shoot Brad, scoop Dean up, and carry him home. There, his mother would hold him, plaster his face in kisses, and make the hurt go away. That was all he wanted. He just wanted to go home and not hurt. It didn’t seem like too much to ask.

“Please,” he whispered again. Brad looked him square in the eyes, and for the first time Dean realized he’d seen those eyes before, though he had no idea where.

“Please WHAT?” Brad snarled.

“Please,” whispered Dean once again. “Please, I just want my mom.”

Brad’s next words chilled him to the bone.

“You just want your mom. Aww. Shoulda thought of that. ‘Cuz your mom’s dead, you little piece of shit, and it’s all your fault.”

Dead? No. Lily couldn’t...she couldn’t be.

Brad said nothing else, just turned and walked away, slamming the door behind him, engulfing the terrified boy in darkness. Dean heard the lock turn.

Mom was dead.

He was alone.

Dean’s body was wracked with sobs again as he curled up into a ball. He cried until he didn’t feel anything anymore. He cried until he stopped caring about being alone in the dark. He cried until eventually, his body succumbed to the exhaustion and fear, and he passed out.

 

Roman was still a bit out of it from the episode earlier, and the meds he’d been given at the hospital, and he didn’t know quite what was going on. He was vaguely aware that something was wrong with Dean, but he wasn’t sure exactly what that might be. He woke up to his mama staring down into his face, tears still running down her cheeks. It still didn’t click though. She managed a meager smile when he opened his eyes.

“I love you, kiddo,” she whispered. “I’ve got you. We’re gonna be okay, Ro.”

“I know,” he mumbled, still confused as to why she was crying or what she meant.

Her watery blue eyes still held his gaze and he snuggled closer to her, which elicited a quiet sob from her.

“What’s the matter, Mama?” Roman was so groggy. He felt Lily’s hand in his hair.

“Shh...nothing, my baby,” she whispered softly. “I just need you to know that I love you, kiddo. I just...I love you.”

Even Roman could tell that his mom was acting strangely, but the why of it was lost on him. She tightened her arms around him and he felt a cozy warmth spread over him.

After awhile, Dad and Seth came in and neither of them looked right, either. Pete, a good friend of their family, approached Tony and let him by the elbow to the kitchen while Seth sank into the big recliner. Seth, Roman noticed, was shivering violently, despite the warm clothes he was wearing. Roman wondered if it was cold in the house and maybe he just couldn’t feel it.

“Bub?” Lily said quietly.

Seth just shook his head.

“I couldn’t find him,” he whispered.

“I know,” Lily whispered back.

Couldn’t find who? Roman wanted to ask, but both his mom and brother seemed so distraught that it just didn’t seem right to question them. Plus he wasn’t 100% sure he could form the words. But Dean would get a real kick out of the way they were acting. Where was he, anyway?

Wait a sec.

Someone was missing. Something was wrong with Dean. Dean wasn’t there. Dean was---

“Where’s Dean?” Roman groaned suddenly. Lily’s face contorted and Seth’s crumbled.

“We’re going to find him, Ro. We are,” Lily whispered.

“Where is he?” Roman repeated, still bewildered but catching on by the second.

“Shh…” Mama whispered. “Okay. Calm down, baby. Just calm---”

“Where IS HE?!” In Roman’s agitation, he didn’t realize that Seth was beginning to breathe hard.

“Roman,” tears continued to pour down Lily’s cheeks as she tried to calm him, but Roman was having none of that.

“Where’s Dean? Where’s my brother?” Lily planted a kiss on Roman’s forehead.

“We’re going to find him, baby. Kiddo, we’re gonna...he’s gonna be fine. We’re all going to be fine.” Tears started to slide down Roman’s cheeks. Lily began to cry harder. And then suddenly, Seth just started to scream.

“HE’S GONE!” Seth shrieked. “He’s gone and it’s my fault. It’s all my fault.”

Seth leaped to his feet, then sat down, then leaped to his feet again. Then he sank to his knees. With Roman across her lap, she couldn’t get to Seth.

“Tony?” Roman heard his mother yell over Seth’s anguished wails. Their father ran into the room so fast he knocked over an end table right as Seth collapsed all the way to the floor.

“No. No, no, no. It’s my fault, Daddy,” he sobbed. Tony tried to lift him into his arms, but Seth was writhing, jerking, trying to shake loose and Tony couldn’t get a good grip on him.

“Seth. It’s not. It’s not your fault.” Tony finally just sat down beside him and patted his arm. “You didn’t do anything wrong, son.”

“Daddy,” Seth wailed.

“Shhhh...I know, buddy. I know.”

“Daddy, where is he?” Seth was begging; Roman could hear it in his voice. Never in his life had he wanted more to protect his brother than he did right then, but he just couldn’t make his body move. It was the most awful, helpless feeling. He didn’t know what had happened, but he knew it couldn’t possibly be Seth’s fault. There was just no way.

“Seth,” Roman held his hand out as he murmured his brother’s name. Seth looked up at him from the floor, face swollen, brown eyes desperate. His skin was mottled and red and he was still just gasping.

“Come here,” Roman said. Seth just looked at him, still crying desolately.

“Come here,” Roman repeated. Seth shook his head.

“Please,” Roman whispered.

With a strangled moan, Seth crawled across the floor towards his oldest brother. When he got close enough Roman touched his face, then his arm, helping him up until Seth was half on the floor, half on the couch, resting his head on Roman’s stomach.

“Daddy and Mama will find him,” Roman said. It was all he could muster and for the millionth time, he cursed his stupid brain for not being able to say all of the things he wanted to tell Seth right then.

“They will,” he whispered instead.

Seth continued to sob against Roman, but Tony moved closer until he was kneeling beside them, rubbing Seth’s back and shoulders.

“I did this,” Seth whimpered again, looking into Roman’s eyes.

“No. Not your fault,” Roman replied. He reached out and patted the back of his brother’s head. Their parents just watched. Lily reached a hand out, smoothing Seth’s hair back out of his eyes.

“Not your fault,” Roman whispered again. Seth said nothing, but before much longer, he slowly sagged off of Roman and into their father’s waiting arms.

“It’s okay, buddy,” Dad murmured, holding Seth tight. “It’s okay, Seth. I’ve got you. We’re going to find Dean and we’re going to get through this.”

 

Tony wasn’t entirely sure he believed that, but what else could he say? Of course it wasn’t Seth’s fault; brothers fought. Hell, Tony and his brother Joe, who was the closest to him in age, barely spoke to each other from the time Tony started high school until Joe went off to college two years later. With only a year and three days separating Roman and Seth, and Dean falling smack dab in the middle, one of the things that made Tony the most proud was how close his boys were. They shared a bond that no one and nothing would ever be able to break.

Neither would this, but seeing Seth in this state made everything feel twice as awful.

Honestly, while storming out maybe wasn’t the best idea, Tony couldn’t blame Dean either. They’d always taught the boys to communicate with words and if you couldn’t you took a time out. How was anyone, least of all Seth, to know that a time out would lead to this? Whatever this was.

Eventually his youngest son cried it out until he was just limp in Tony’s lap, halfway between awake and oblivion. He looked over at Lily and Roman. Their oldest wasn’t sleeping, but he was laying against his mother’s shoulder now, staring off, but clearly unseeing. Lily stroked his hair and he blinked every so often but he seemed to be in a daze. Lily herself just looked completely spent. Tony knew he wasn’t going to get any sleep that night, but he also knew he needed to take care of his family.

“Think we should get these boys to bed?” Tony asked her quietly. Lily shook her head.

“I’m not letting them out of my sight,” she whispered. “Ever. Not even when they’re 40.” And right then, Tony could tell she was dead serious.

“They can sleep our bed,” he replied. After some hesitation, she nodded.

Slowly, carefully, he lifted Seth up into his arms and carried him into their bedroom. Then he went into Seth’s room and pulled the blanket off of Seth’s bed. He always needed a cocoon to sleep in, probably always would. It didn’t seem to matter what blanket, but Tony had a notion that his own might be a little comforting. He tucked it around his boy.

When he returned to the living room, Roman was still laying on Lily, and she was resting her cheek on the top of his head.

“I’m just so tired,” she murmured to Tony, and her voice sounded defeated.

“I know. It’s okay. Roman?” Tony gently took his son’s arm.

“Hmmm?” Yup, definitely dazed. Probably exhausted. His parents helped him sit up.

“Come on, buddy. You’re too big for me to carry, but let’s get you to bed anyway.”

He helped Roman to his feet and bore quite a bit of his weight, but Roman stepped carefully and they made it to the bed. He supported him as he got him in and Roman’s eyes closed almost as soon as his head found a pillow and his breathing evened out. He was asleep. Tony watched, a small smile on his lips as the boy rolled over and unconsciously threw an arm over his little brother.

When he returned to the living room for his wife she was crying again, deep, shuddering sobs that he knew she’d been working hard to conceal from their boys. Tony scooped her into his arms and sat down on the couch and just held on.

“I want my baby,” she finally managed to whisper into his neck.

“Lu, I know. I know, but...the best people in the whole world are looking for him. They’re out scouring the property for him right now. Pete got an Amber Alert started. Lu...Lulu...I love you. I love you so much. We’ve gotta hang on. Someone somewhere knows where he is. We’ll find him. We’ll find him, baby. We will. Don’t give up. Okay? You can’t give up. We can’t give up on Dean.”

It took a few minutes but Lily finally stopped shaking and she looked up at him.

“I know. I’m not giving up on him. He’s the toughest of the bunch. He’s strong. Girardi strong. I just...I can’t quit this...I just have this feeling, T. It’s strange, right? But I can feel Dean.”

“It’s not strange. I don’t think it’s strange at all. You’re his mother.”

“He’s afraid,” she said.

“I’m sure he probably is, but---”

“No. Tony, I’m telling you. That’s what I feel. He’s afraid. We’ve got to find him. Soon. Tough as he is...he’s afraid.” Lily’s eyes misted for a moment, but then she stood up.

“Will you get a few bottles of water in case the boys need it?”

He nodded and headed for the kitchen as she retreated towards their bedroom. Pete and two other agents were sitting around the table, all tapping away at laptops. Tony really appreciated that they’d given his family some privacy that evening, and he told them as much. Pete stood up and clasped Tony’s shoulder.

“You’re as good as my brother,” he said quietly. “You just take care of Lily and Roman and Seth okay? We’re going to find Dean, Tony. We will. I know it’s useless to tell you to try not to worry...but try. Okay?”

Tony shook his head.

“Impossible. But...if anyone can find my kid, it’s you. Thanks, Pete.”

“You’re welcome. I’m serious, pal. Take care of you and Lily and those boys. I’ll take care of this. That’s a promise.”

Tony considered chastising Pete for making a promise he definitely might not be able to keep, but he decided to let it slide.

He grabbed two bottles of water and slipped into the bedroom, turning out the lights as he did so. The only light in the room came from the lamp on Lily’s nightstand. She was curled around Seth with her arm draped across him and resting on Roman, her hand on his elbow. She was almost asleep; Tony could tell. He kissed her cheek softly.

“I love you,” he whispered into her ear and he barely heard her mumble,

“I love you too.”

Tony set the water on his own nightstand and climbed into bed beside Roman. He still knew he wouldn’t sleep, but the sight of his oldest and his youngest snuggled up with their mother did calm him slightly. He couldn’t help but wonder something, though. With four people crammed so tightly into a bed, how was it possible for that bed to still feel so very empty?

Chapter Text

Was it possible to wake up more tired than you were when you went to sleep? Because Lily was pretty sure she was when she got up the next morning. She’d lost count of how many times Seth woke up during the night, and when he did, he clung to her like a baby orangutan keeping a tight grip on its mother. She’d smooth his hair back, pat him, whisper soft, soothing words into his ear. And he’d always go back to sleep in just minutes; never did he cry, scream, or get overly upset, but any attempt from Tony to comfort him was met with Seth stiffening and trying to scoot away.

It wasn’t that she minded. Under normal circumstances she loved snuggling with her baby, and under normal circumstances, he wasn’t nearly as into that as he had once been. Every so often, Seth would wake in the night and somehow, Lily would always just know. She couldn’t even say the last time he had a nightmare, but still, she always knew. And she’d go to his room to find him huddled under his covers, not upset but not sure what had made him wake up, and then he’d gladly snuggle into her arms. She would love on him until he went back to sleep, and then she’d return to bed.

Really, the progress Seth had made in just over three years was amazing; everyone said so, and his relationship with Tony was great. So his apparent avoidance of his father’s attempts at comfort made zero sense. But Lily decided she couldn’t worry about that right then.

In the forefront of her mind was this constant nagging feeling that Dean was terrified. For awhile during the night that feeling had abated somewhat, though it never completely went away. Wherever he was, Lily was 100% certain that he was no longer on their property---she just had no idea why she knew it.

She wondered if he was cold, or hungry, or in pain. She somehow suspected it was all three.

At 6 Lily stopped fighting it and just got up. Tony hadn’t slept, she didn’t think. Every single time Seth had wrapped her in a death grip, he’d been awake already. Roman, the heaviest sleeper on the planet, only woke up about half the time.

She went into the kitchen, intent on starting a pot of coffee, and was surprised to find Pete Cimino sitting at her kitchen table staring at his computer. There was fresh coffee in the pot and without speaking she poured herself a cup and sat down across from him.

Pete and his wife Meredith had been good friends of the Girardi’s for a long time. He and Tony had trained at Quantico together way back before Houston and marriage and families had even been a glimmer in either of their eyes. They’d been delighted to get sent to Texas together, and Pete had been in their wedding. He and his wife had seven children, which for a few years was a bone of contention with Lily; try as she might, she just couldn’t get past the jealousy for awhile there.

Things were better since Roman arrived, and Lily was able to break down that wall and repair her relationship with Meredith again. They didn’t see as much of each other as they’d like, but they spoke often and texted daily, usually with some antic one of their children had been up to.

Pete was so engrossed in whatever he was doing that he didn’t even realize Lily had entered the room until she sat down. He smiled warmly at her when he looked up.

“You hanging in there?” Pete asked.

“Trying,” she replied. “Pete, can I ask you something?”

“You know it,” he answered. “Shoot.”

“Okay. How much trouble am I in here?”

Pete looked at her quizzically.

“I’m not sure I see what you mean,” he said slowly.

“I mean the locals think I had something to do with it,” Lily responded. “That much is clear. And they’re already not too happy that you’re here. So how far are they going to push this?”

Pete set his coffee down and looked at her.

“You know that some of that was legit routine questioning, but that guy yesterday? He was completely out of line. He’s been reported. The people who matter know you’d never hurt Dean, and the people who matter know that Dean wouldn’t run away. We’re working on it, Lily. I’ve got the best people looking for him.”

“Yeah...thanks for that,” Lily murmured into her cup.

“Any time,” Pete said softly back.

Lily got up and went to the windows, which overlooked their property. The sun was just starting to come up. Off in the distance, she could see the beam of a flashlight in the woods, and while she was still full of despair, her heart did swell just a little for the people who were helping her find her baby boy.

“I love him,” she finally whispered.

“I know you do. Of course you do,” Pete stood up and approached Lily and pulled her into a hug. She sagged. Then she sighed.

“Pete. Peter, I just...I don’t know if it’s instinct or maybe I’m just crazy but...I don’t think Dean is on our property. I don’t have a damn clue WHERE Dean is but I just...he didn’t fall off his bike. He’s not lying there injured. And I know...that either means he left or...or that someone took him. And I don’t know which sounds worse. And I’m also an FBI agent’s wife and I know...I know that if a child is abducted, and he’s not found within 24 hours, then the odds of us finding him at all dwindle. And I can’t...that can’t happen. But I don’t know how to make it stop.”

The thing was, Lily wasn’t hysterical or even crying. Her words were very matter of fact. She wasn’t giving up, not by a long shot. But she knew, knew beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they were running out of time.

She sighed again and picked up her coffee and went out to the back porch. It was chilly, and she shivered, but she sat down anyway. She thought about Dean. She thought hard.

“Don’t give up, sweetie,” she willed herself to make him feel her, the way she knew she could somehow feel him. “Hang on, baby. Just hang on. We’re going to find you. I love you. I love you. Mama loves you so very much. Just hold on.”

 

Dean had no way of knowing what time it was in that awful, cold, windowless room. He woke up often during the night, his sleep restless. Every part of his body was crying out in pain, and he just couldn’t stop his tears. Was she really dead? And if she was, what had happened? There was no way for him to know.

At one point, he mustered up every ounce of energy he had left and reached for the blanket that had been thrown at him after he’d been tossed like old garbage into the corner. He pulled it up around him. It was too thin to do much good but anything was better than nothing.

After awhile Dean woke up and it was clear he wouldn’t be able to get himself to succumb again. He had to pee, he was desperately thirsty, and there was still no part of him that didn’t hurt. The worst pain was in his heart, though. He wanted his parents. He wanted his brothers. He wanted to know that Roman was doing better and he wanted, more than anything, to apologize to Seth.

What if he never saw them again?

Brad had said that he was going to ask for ransom, sure. And Dean had no doubts that his father would pay it somehow. But Brad, whoever he was, and Tina too, didn’t exactly seem to be the most trustworthy people. And he’d seen it in Brad’s eyes last night---he’d been out to kill him or at least seriously injure him and he would have too, if Tina hadn’t intervened. There was no guarantee of survival. He had to figure out how to get away from this.

Right then, there was absolutely no way he could escape. Dean had had broken ribs before, twice, both from bike mishaps, and they hurt like a bitch, and he was pretty sure he had a couple now. Before, they’d healed after he’d laid low and used bags of ice and Mama had given him Tylenol.

Mama.

Every time she crept into his thoughts, he felt waves of pain and nausea wash over him. She was gone. He would never see her again. She had been his beacon since he was eleven years old; part of the standard to which he’d held himself to. Lily had taken him in when his own mother had done the unspeakable. She’d cared for him when he was sick, hurt, scared, angry---no matter what he’d done, she’d loved him. How had it happened? Dean wished more than anything that he could remember the night before.

The thoughts rolling through his head were horrific.

If Lily was gone and Brad knew about it, he almost had to be involved in her death somehow, because she’d been just fine the last time Dean had seen her. So Brad had killed her. That bastard killed his mom. And he was right; it was all Dean’s fault. If she’d died trying to protect him, if she’d left Roman and Seth for him, and here Dean was anyway...what a waste.

He stopped thinking then and let the tears wash over him once more; sobs pouring out of him from the depths of his soul. Brad had to be wrong. He just had to be. He had to be lying. Or maybe he’d hurt his Mama somehow and only thought she was gone. But Dean didn’t really believe that.

Suddenly, as Dean laid there and sobbed, he felt a sense of soft peace wash over him. He had no idea where it’d come from but it was like his brain reset. There was a presence, or an aura, or just...just a feeling or...something. He felt himself start to relax. He had to hang on. He couldn’t give up. For his father, for his brothers, and even for his Mama, gone or not. He absolutely couldn’t give up.

The door creaked open and Dean tensed as he turned his head to who was there but Tina entered the room and he relaxed a tiny bit. She turned on a light, but it was dim and the room was still dark and bathed in shadows. Tina looked down at him.

“Brought you somethin’” was all she said before she tossed a bottle of water at Dean.

He was weak and shaking, and it took what felt like forever for him to pick up the bottle, open it, and take a sip. Nothing had ever tasted more wonderful, but it didn’t take long for more nausea to wash over him; he couldn’t drink much.

“I’ll get you another blanket,” Tina muttered, leaving the room. She left the door open but Dean didn’t even attempt to get up. He wasn’t at all sure that he could get his legs under him.

When Tina returned with the blanket, one that, Dean noticed gratefully, was considerably heavier than the first, Dean took a chance.

“I---I need the restroom,” he whispered, not making eye contact. He could feel Tina beside him.

“Yeah...yeah, okay,” she said shortly. “Use the bucket in that corner.”

“Okay...but...I don’t think I can get up,” Dean’s voice was still a whisper and he still cast his eyes down, partly due the pain he was in and partly because this was humiliating, and it just didn’t seem fair to throw embarrassment on top of everything else he was feeling. Regardless of the situation he was in, he didn’t want Tina to watch him pee.

“More trouble than you’re worth,” Tina muttered, but she brought Dean the bucket and helped him sit up.

Dean took another chance.

“Don’t...don’t watch.”

And something happened that Dean did not expect. Tina laughed.

“Don’t worry,” she said wryly, and she turned away.

Dean forced himself to get to his knees and pull his pants down as quickly as he could because he didn’t want Tina to change her mind, and he REALLY didn’t want Brad to show up and find him that compromising position.

He relieved himself and he felt much better. He managed another sip of water again before laying back down on the hard floor and covering himself up with the new, warm blanket. He expected Tina to leave him alone again but for whatever reason, she didn’t.

Neither of them spoke. Dean had calmed down considerably and was even starting to feel warm and...okay. Not comfortable; no way was THAT going to happen. But at least he wasn’t freezing anymore. He began to doze, and still Tina sat there, but then they both jumped when they heard a door slam.
Brad was back.

Chapter Text

When Roman woke up the day after Dean disappeared, he realized right away that he was in their parents’ bed and that Seth was beside him. He briefly wondered where Dean was---then it all came flooding back.

Dean wasn’t there.

Roman’s heart sank. There had to be something...something he could do. He debated whether to rouse Seth, but then he remembered the state Seth had been in last night and he decided against it. He dragged himself out of the bed and to the bathroom, and then out to the living room, where he found his father talking to Pete and three other agents.

“Where’s Mom?” Roman asked.

“Out on the patio,” Tony replied softly. “Why don’t you go see if she wants to talk?”

“Is she okay?” His Dad didn’t look too happy.

“She’s...she’s as okay as she can be, but I think she could maybe use a hug from you or Seth,” Tony answered.

Roman and Honey Badger went outside, the chill hanging in the air giving Roman goosebumps. Mom was wrapped in a blanket with a cup of coffee, just staring off into the distance.

“Mama?” Roman said quietly.

“Huh? Oh---hi, Ro,” Lily murmured.

Roman sat down in the chair beside her, and she looked at him.

“What’re you doing?” Roman asked gently.

“Just...trying to think about Dean. I feel like...like if I try hard enough, I can maybe get him to feel my thoughts. Crazy huh?”

Roman thought it was actually the least crazy thing he’d ever heard.

“No. Maybe I could try it too…” he answered.

Lily smiled then, a sad smile.

“You...yeah. Yeah, you should. You know how much your brother loves you right?” It was more of a statement than a question, but Roman answered anyway.

“Of course. And I love him. And as soon as he’s home, I’ll tell him again.”

“He’s going to come home,” Mom said resolutely.

“I know,” Roman replied. Lily took his hand and squeezed, but she didn’t say anything more. Together they stared out at the woods and the lake. Then Roman laid his head on Lily’s shoulder and sighed. He felt her gently kiss his forehead.

“So what do we do now?” Roman asked. Lily wrapped her arm around him.

“We wait. And we pray. The local cops are still stuck on him either being lost on our property somewhere or being a runaway, but Pete and the others have an Amber Alert out and they have a tip line set up. If he’s been...if somebody took him, then we pray they call and ask for money and end this now,” Lily answered.

“Do...you have enough money right?” Roman hated to ask this.

“We’ll make it work, kiddo. For our boys? We’ll do whatever we need to do.”

Roman sighed.

“There has to be something else, Mom. Something besides just sitting and waiting.”

“Ro...I know the feeling. But...I don’t think he’s on the property. They’ve almost finished searching all of it. And beyond that...unless someone calls in a tip...it’s like a needle in a haystack. So the best thing we can do is let the professionals handle it and just...just pray.”

There was a long pause and then Roman asked the question that paralyzed him with fear.

“Mama...do you think we’ll find him? Will we find Dean alive?”

Lily squeezed Roman tighter.

“Yes. We’ll find him alive. He’s out there, Ro. We’ve just...we’ve just gotta figure out where.

 

___________________________________________________

 

Dean shrank back into the corner of his tiny room as Brad’s large silhouette appeared in the door.

“The Hell are you doing, Tina?” Brad demanded.

“Kid’s gotta have water, don’t he?” Tina snapped. “Besides, hell if I knew when you were coming back.”

“Little piece of shit got thirsty, huh? Little bastard. Rich little bastard. How much do you think his ass is worth?” Dean could feel Brad’s eyes on him and suddenly he felt dirty, sullied, like he was some kind of piece of meat instead of a nearly 16-year-old boy.

“He’s a good kid; his parents’ll pay a pretty penny,” Tina replied. “Hey---you hungry, kid?”

Dean shook his head; the thought of food made his stomach lurch. He knew if he was to get out of this he’d have to eat eventually or he’d never regain his strength and then how could he fight back and run? But right now his body still hurt and he was still so tired. He was completely determined not to give up; that much was for sure. However his emotions still rolled over him like choppy waves. He wanted more than anything to be wrapped in a blanket in his mom’s arms back at home in his comfy bed.

“He can’t be that good a kid,” Brad muttered, still looking Dean over. But rather than saying anything else, he just turned and left the room, Tina at his heels.

The beauty of it was, Brad had no idea. Dean wasn’t “that good a kid,” had never been “that good a kid,” but he knew damn well that it didn’t matter. His father would pay, dammit. He WOULD.

Dean curled up under the blanket, closed his eyes, and let his mind drift to a different place, one that hadn’t happened yet, but that would. He didn’t let himself feel or think or consider that he may not even be present for this:

It was his 16th birthday. He wanted to eat dinner at Emilio’s because they had all the King crab legs you could eat, along with whatever other seafood you wanted to order off the menu. So basically, he intended to eat crab legs until he exploded and then top it off with bacon-wrapped shrimp, swordfish piccata, and lobster spaghetti. Gluttonous? Sure. But a guy only turned 16 once. Later, he would go home and open gifts surrounded by his family, and then---oh, and then---he knew what was going to happen.
Ever since Roman had been given a Jeep for his 16th, Dean knew what he wanted---a Ford F-150. With leather interior, heated seats, and in red, thank you very much. He’d been practicing driving meticulously, and he was ready for his truck. His father would drive it up. His mother would present him with the keys. And then he’d drive off, with Roman and Seth of course, and they’d cruise the highway and laugh and joke and then he’d show up at school the next day. All the girls would flock to him. He’d be the most popular guy in school. And then---

---Dean’s reverie was shattered when he heard the door slam. It was Tina, holding a plate of runny eggs.

“Here. Gotta eat,” she set the plate down beside him.

He regarded her with lidded eyes.

Why was she being so nice to him? Did she honestly think that he was going to make small talk with her, eat her food, ACCEPT her, when she’d taken place in his kidnapping? And possibly the death of his---

Dammit. There came the tears again.

“Look...crying’s not going to get you anywhere,” Tina said.

“I want to go home,” Dean whispered.

“Well...this is home for now,” she replied. “Til Brad decides how much he wants and makes a few phone calls. Better just hope your parents miss you as much as they’re gonna need to.”

 

_______________________________________________

 

Seth curled up in his parents’ bed and shivered; why was he so cold all of a sudden? He opened his eyes and that’s when he realized he was alone.

Dean was still gone, and now the rest of his family was too. Fitting. His father and Roman had said it---it wasn’t his fault. But what else were they supposed to say really? ‘You did it, Seth. It’s all because of you.’ He wondered if the truth would’ve hurt as badly out loud as it did inside his head.

There was a heavy feeling in the pit of Seth’s stomach. Dean---where on Earth was he? Seth closed his eyes again and pulled his blanket up to his ear. Tears welled up in his eyes. If only he’d been a better brother. If only he hadn’t yelled. He should’ve just rolled with it; he knew Dean was emotional and he needed his space. The tears began to fall, and they fell hard.

Seth felt the bed dip as someone sat down next to him. Then he felt a soft hand on his face. Mama. She blamed him; he knew this. Last night, when Dad and Roman had been trying to convince him otherwise, Mom had said nothing. Mom wouldn’t lie to him. Every time he’d awoken during the night, he’d grabbed ahold of her, desperate for her comfort, and she hadn’t pulled away. But she hadn’t said anything either. Seth didn’t even know at this point what he wanted her to say. And nothing would help anyway.

“Bub,” her voice was soft, her touch gentle as she ran her hand down his back. “Oh, bub. Come here.”

But Seth just shook his head and curled up tighter.

“I know you’re scared,” she murmured. “I am too.”

“I-I-I…” Seth stuttered. He was trying to tell her how sorry he was; to apologize for doing something that had caused her this fear, but the words just wouldn’t come out around his deep sobs.

“Shh...oh, my baby,” she continued to rub his back. Then she snuggled up closer to him and gently rolled him to the other side. “Come here. I’ve got you. Come here, Seth.”

And Seth did, because suddenly he wanted nothing more than for her to hold him and just make it all go away, no matter how much he had screwed up. Lily enveloped him in her arms, pressed her lips to his forehead, and wrapped the blanket around them both.

It took him a good half hour to calm down enough to say what he wanted to say.

“I’m sorry, Mama. I’m so, so, so sorry,” he whimpered into her neck. She was still stroking his spine, smoothing her other hand through his longish curls.

“Why, Seth William, what on Earth? Why are you sorry, bub?” Lily held him tighter, which only served to make him cry harder.

“Seth...baby? You know this...oh, bub,” understanding flushed his mom’s face.

“You did not do this,” she murmured into his ear.

“Y-yes, y-y-yes, b-because---” he tried to tell her, tried to explain, but she interrupted him.

“No. No, no, no,” Lily’s voice was firmer now, still loving and gentle, but it was the tone she used when she was not playing.

“Yes,” Seth whispered.

“No,” Lily replied.

“But if I hadn’t---”

“You didn’t.”

“I’m a horrible brother, Mommy,” Seth moaned.

“You aren’t. Roman and Dean love you. You guys argued. It happens.”

“I ran him off. He ran away because of me. And now---” but again, Seth’s mother interrupted.

“Seth William Girardi,” it was the Mom Voice now. “Listen to me. This is not your fault. You did not do this. If we’re going to go by that logic, I’m just as much to blame as you are because I didn’t do anything to prevent him from leaving. And while we’re at it, we may as well all blame Roman for getting hurt in the first place.”

Neither of them spoke for awhile. Seth still sniffled and shook. Lily still held on tight. It took him some time but eventually he managed to relax.

“I love you, bub,” Lily murmured softly.

“I love you too,” Seth’s head hurt from crying so much, but his mom didn’t blame him and that made him feel a little bit better.

They got up and joined Dad and Roman in the kitchen; their father looked as though he hadn’t slept. He was stirring a pan of scrambled eggs. Lily poured orange juice. Seth wasn’t very hungry, but he knew that not eating wouldn’t be something his parents accepted, so he managed to get a couple of mouthfuls in. Then the back door flew open.

“Tony? Lily?” It was Pete.

“Pete?” Lily looked at him hopefully, but his expression wasn’t all that happy.

“We’ve covered all of the property,” Pete said, his tone careful. “No sign of Dean. They---the police---they think it’s time to drag the lake.”

Chapter Text

About three days after Dean disappeared, Roman woke up in the middle of the night shaking and screaming. There hadn’t been a nightmare, not that he could recall, but for some reason he was terrified. His father was the parent on duty that night.

“Roman? Buddy?” Tony took one look at his oldest and sat down on the edge of his bed. “You okay?”

Roman shook his head, panting, trying to figure out where this overwhelming fear was coming from.

“Are you in pain?” Tony reached out and touched his forehead. Roman knew he was sweating buckets, but he shook his head again.

“No. No, I just...I don’t know what happened,” he managed to choke out.

“Okay. Can you take a deep breath?” Roman tried, then tried again, then sat up and swung his legs over his bed.

“Can we get up? Just for a little bit?” He thought maybe if he just moved around a little, the paralyzing feeling might abate. His father agreed, and the two of them moved out to the living room sofa. Every so often, Roman would stand and stretch, then sit back down, but the feeling in his gut wasn’t letting up.

The search for Dean had slowly moved from the family property to other avenues. There had been numerous tips on the tip line that was set up, but nothing that produced any results. According to callers, Dean could be found as far away as Nepal, but there was no evidence to suggest that this was actually the truth. Turns out the general public wasn’t too reliable.

The only good thing about the search taking longer was that the local police were FINALLY beginning to treat the situation less as a lost child and more as a runaway or an abductee (and no on in the family believed that Dean had run off, and if he had, he’d surely be home by now). It was that revelation earlier in the day that had begun the uneasy feeling in Roman’s chest.

Something...he knew something.

He was forgetting...SOMETHING. He started to shake again.

“Hey...hey, buddy. Calm down,” his father wrapped an arm around him and pulled him close. About then, his mother joined them.

“Seth okay?” Tony asked.

“Seth’s asleep, finally,” Lily murmured. “What’s going on, Ro?”

“I just...Mommy...something...I’ve forgotten something,” he whimpered.

“What do you mean?” Lily asked, wrapping her own arms around him. Now he was a Roman sandwich between Mom and Dad, and that calmed him instantly. He rested his head on his mother’s shoulder.

“I just...something...there’s something in my head and I can’t remember. Something---Mama, I think I know something and I can’t remember.”

Lily hugged him tighter.

“It’s okay, Ro,” she murmured. “Just relax, baby. Relax and try and go back to sleep. It’ll come to you.”

Roman and Seth had been pulled from school. This was for a few reasons. First and foremost, there was absolutely no way they were going to be able to concentrate on the work. Everyone in the building knew of Dean’s disappearance, there were sure to be questions, and the idea of all the attention had Seth in shambles. So Tony had called the principal, who’d agreed that since there were only two weeks until winter break began anyway, it was okay for the boys to work from home.

Second of all, although Seth had given up on his notion that he was to blame for Dean’s disappearance, he (and Lily for that matter) was constantly afraid that whoever had taken Dean would be coming after him and Roman next. Regardless of Tony’s repeated promises that they could send the boys with protective agents, Lily hadn’t gone for it and so home they stayed.

Now, as Roman sat curled between his parents, he couldn’t help but feel grateful that he wouldn’t have to get up early in the morning, because here it was, 2 am, and sleep didn’t seem to be coming his way any time soon. He was so scared right then that he didn’t think he’d be able to function anyway.

He sighed.

“I can’t sleep,” he muttered. “No way.” He didn’t miss the look his parents exchanged.

“Okay,” Lily said calmly. “I’m sure Seth will be awake in the next 15 minutes. Let’s just camp out on the couch.”

They sat quietly. They cuddled and then suddenly Roman sat up bolt straight.

“Someone called him,” he whispered.

“Someone called who? Dean?” Tony asked. Roman nodded.

“Okay…” Lily murmured.

“Dean gets lots of calls,” Tony began.

“Yeah, but on the landline? And the person...the man...he asked for Dean AMBROSE. Not Dean Girardi. Who even knows that was his name anymore?” Roman was beginning to sweat again.

“Mama? What if---what if he took him? He got really mad when I told him Dean Ambrose didn’t live here.” Roman was beginning to panic, and then he caught sight of the look in his mother’s eyes.

“Tony…” she began softly. “Tony, someone called on the landline for Dean when you guys were in Italy…”

“You don’t think…” Tony didn’t have to finish.

“I don’t know,” she whispered.

“At any rate---I think we need to call Pete,” Tony said.

Suddenly, Roman felt like a huge weight had been lifted off of him. Maybe this was a sign, a clue---just something, ANYTHING, that would help them find his brother.

 

____________________________________

 

With no real knowledge of the passing hours, it gave Dean plenty of time to worry, fret, and panic. As silently as he could, of course, because Brad didn’t want him making noise and as long as he kept Brad content, Brad did not hit him. It didn’t stop him from questioning in his head though.

How long had he been there? Was his family still looking for him? Had he missed his birthday? Was he going to survive this? When would his father pay the ransom? And when that happened (because Dean was still certain that it would) would Brad really let him go?

And then there was the question that haunted him the most.

Had they had his mother’s funeral yet?

Dean stopped crying at least a day ago, because eventually he just ran out of tears. It wasn’t that he was giving up, although if he was honest, it was getting harder to keep holding on. Although better, his ribs still hurt. He tried his best to eat whatever food Tina offered him (and ordinarily it wouldn’t be nearly enough; his Mama had always called him a human garbage disposal). He usually couldn’t get more than a few bites down, though. Partially, this was because Tina was a lousy cook. Partially, it was because he just didn’t feel up to eating much.

He’d given up on the notion that eating would bring his strength back. By now, Dean was pretty sure that unless he got out of here, his strength was not going to come back. He just couldn’t move much, he didn’t get enough to eat, and water was scarce. He’d stopped drinking the bottle that first day when it was half gone because he didn’t know when or if he’d get more, and he thought he should ration. Another bottle was given to him the next day, so he drank down the first one as though he might never get more. Because realistically, he might not.

Turned out, they, well Tina, brought him a new bottle periodically, and eventually Dean started to realize that he was getting a new bottle every day. Before too long, even that small amount was hard to get down. Dean didn’t think it mattered though. He’d paid enough attention in physiology to know that 17 ounces of water each day was nowhere near enough.

Dean tried to lay still one night, making a halfhearted attempt to sleep, when Brad came in. One whiff and Dean knew he was drunk. He’d grabbed Dean by the shirt.

“Get up,” came a clumsy grunt.

Dean did his best to quickly comply, but his legs just weren’t moving as quickly as Brad seemed to want, and then he tripped and collapsed against his abductor.

“You trying to hit me?” Brad yelled, shoving Dean back.

“N-no---” Dean would’ve tried to explain that it had been an accident, if for no other reason than to try and avoid what by now he figured was coming, but it was too late.

“You’re tryin’ to hit me! You stupid little piece of shit,” Brad slurred. “Stupid dumbass piece of loser shit. I thought you said your mommy and your daddy wanted you back. Huh? Thought that’s what you said. So when they gonna pay up? Answer me that.”

Anger flared through Dean and a little sadness, too; he knew better than to get smart with this psycho, but…

“Yeah, well, it’s your fault!” Where was this burst of energy coming from? “My mom is dead, my brothers need her and you killed her and if it’s taking my dad a little longer, then---”

“SHUT UP!” Brad roared this, and Dean shrank away, but Brad grabbed his shirt again. Then he ripped it open and off Dean’s already aching body.

“YOU DON’T BACK TALK ME BOY!” Brad bellered, and he started to undo his belt.

Dean had been to this place before, with one of Shelby’s many boyfriends, but the knowledge of what was coming didn’t prepare him for the feeling of leather snapping across his bare back. He cried out in agony and dropped to the floor.

“GET UP!” Brad screamed, dragging Dean to his feet by his hair, only to whip him with the belt again and knock him back to the ground.

It went on for what felt like forever; harsh lashes to Dean’s back that made him shriek and squeal; it went on even after he collapsed to the floor, no longer able to get back to his feet no matter how much Brad tried to pull him back up. Sobs erupted from his throat; he tried to stay quiet but eventually he couldn’t help himself.

“No...no, stop, please, I want my mother. Mama? Mama, help me. Help me, please. Oh God. Oh God oh God STOP PLEASE!”

And suddenly Brad did.

Dean knew his back was shredded; he could feel the blood running down his sides. He couldn’t move, couldn’t catch his breath for the sobbing, and then he finally, mercifully, lost consciousness.

 

_________________________________________

 

On the fifth night, a horrible feeling came over Lily.

Still no tips, still no progress. She wasn’t giving up hope and she prayed Dean wasn’t either, but that night---she could feel him stronger than ever. And it wasn’t good.

“No,” she whispered, sitting up bolt straight in bed. Tony rolled over.

“Lu? Babe?”

“No,” Lily repeated, voice wrenched in a sob.

Tony tried to reach for her but she shoved him away and jumped out of bed.

“Lu? Did you have a bad dream?” Tony tried again to talk to her, but she burst into tears.

“He’s hurting him,” her voice shook; she knew she sounded terrified, but so what? She was.

“Who’s---babe? I don’t---” Tony was interrupted by Lily tearing out of the room.

Oh, the feeling---an intense, desperate, agonizing knowledge that her baby was in sheer misery. She couldn’t explain how she felt it, but she felt it. And it kept getting worse.

“You gotta find him. We gotta---T. Someone is hurting Dean,” she begged her husband, who tried to wrap his arms around her, but she backed away.

“NO!” Lily shrieked. “Make them stop hurting him. He needs me to make them stop...he needs...Tony…”

By now, Nana, who had flown home from Ireland with Granddad a couple of days before to be there for the family, had come running into the kitchen. All she could do was stand there and watch as her daughter melted down while Tony tried desperately to help her.

“Shh...we will. We will. Come here. You’re gonna wake the---”

“NO NO NO!” Lily was screaming now, just completely freaking out, and she didn’t care if Roman or Seth heard it, and she didn’t care if the nearest neighbors heard it, and she didn’t care if they heard it in Uruguay. The pain, her baby’s pain and her own, was bubbling up inside her and she couldn’t, in her whole life, recall ever feeling like this before. She knew, she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt, that her baby was in trouble and the fact that she could do nothing...to Lily, it felt like she was slowly dying.

So she did the only thing she could think of.

She grabbed the nearest piece of whatever she could reach on the counter, which happened to be a plate, and flung it at the wall. It felt so good that she grabbed something else, a mug this time, and she flung that too. The release opened a floodgate inside her. By now, Granddad and the boys were up, and as Lily’s father tried to shield her sons from her tantrum, she continued to fling dishes at the wall. It was becoming quite dented and for awhile, the only sounds were sobs and glass breaking, until suddenly...the feeling was gone.

Just as quickly as it had come over her, the feeling was gone. She surveyed the mess. Then she sank down to the floor, crossed her legs, and buried her head in her hands. She wiped her eyes. Tony came and sat beside her. She could see Roman and Seth in the doorway, her father’s arms around them, and the looks on their faces should have made her feel rueful, but she didn’t. Her heart was pounding, her nose was running, and her kitchen was destroyed. Her boys were upset. But she didn’t feel sinful the way she knew she probably should.

“Feel better?” Tony asked her quietly. She shook her head.

“Nope,” Lily murmured.

“Feel like you can at least carry on now?” Tony tried again, and this time, Lily nodded.

“I do,” she whispered. Then she stood up, disengaged her shocked sons from her father’s arms, and took them back to bed.

 

_______________________________________________

 

Later that night, as Dean lay on the floor, Tina tried to gently clean the cuts on his back that had been made by Brad’s belt. The pain was agonizing but the danger had passed, and he just didn’t have the energy to even cry out at this point. He could tell that Tina felt remorseful, though for what Dean wasn’t sure. She hadn’t even been there when Brad had gone crazy, much less played a part in it.

“Listen...I said I wouldn’t let him kill you, kid, and I won’t, but you gotta---just---I can’t be here all the time, and you---just don’t piss him off,” she whispered to him in a voice that, Dean could only guess, was a misguided attempt at soothing him.

Dean couldn’t really move, his body paralyzed by pain, but he managed to whisper back,

“It wasn’t on purpose. I lost my balance.”

“I believe you. But he’s drunk and when he gets drunk---”

Dean quietly interrupted.

“Does he hit you?”

Tina looked Dean straight in the eye.

“I’d kill him if he tried it,” she replied, and Dean could tell she meant it.

“You’re not like him,” Dean whispered.

“I’m...I ain’t no saint either,” Tina murmured. “But him beating the shit out of you wasn’t part of the deal. Just like neither was him not making a demand for ransom. The deal was he’d snatch you, your parents would pay up, and we’d be in Tahiti by the weekend.”

A chord was struck inside Dean, one he was way too exhausted to fight about but one he knew he had to address.

“You mean...he hasn’t even…” Tears began to well in Dean’s eyes.

“Now...hey. Hey, don’t start that again,” Tina almost sounded desperate.

“I want to go home,” Dean moaned. “He said he would ask for money and as soon as they paid…”

“I know,” Tina looked stricken. “I know, kid. Just...I’m trying to get you home, okay? I’m trying to get him...to make him get a move on. I’m...fuck…”

She couldn’t finish and right then, Dean felt a little bit of pity, just a twinge, for this woman who, despite everything, was trying her best to make better of the awful situation. If he ever got away. If he ever...he was going to do his best to make sure she was okay.

“It isn’t your fault,” he said.

“Maybe...maybe not. Ain’t no saint, like I said. Just didn’t ever intend for any of this to happen. You’re a good kid. I can tell. Not like Brad.” Tina sighed. “Not like your useless mother either.”

Something connected in Dean’s head.

“You...know my...mama?” His voice was shaking. Tina shook your head.

“Not your mama. Your good for nothing mother. Shelby. Known her and Brad since school.”

Something else connected in his head. Dean Benjamin Girardi, formerly Dean Bradley Ambrose, suddenly knew exactly what was going on.

“He...he’s my father isn’t he.”

It wasn’t a question and he tuned out the answer because this meant something more important. Brad, his biological father, kept referring to his dead mother, but was it possible it wasn’t Lily at all that he meant?
Because if he’d been talking about Shelby all along, then that meant...it was possible...that Lily was alive. And that meant that no matter what, Dean had to hang on.

Chapter Text

As the days turned into a week, and then almost two, Tony found himself brooding more and hoping less. For her part, Lily seemed to be doing okay since she had thrown and shattered all those dishes. Tony knew she needed to get it out. The boys were struggling more and more, though. Roman was sullen and anxious. All Seth wanted to do was sleep, but he woke up screaming every time he tried. The boy was a walking zombie, and no amount of counselling was helping.

Dean’s birthday came and went. Lily had insisted that she bake him a cake anyway.

“I’ll make another when he comes home,” she said resolutely, but no one could bring themselves to eat it. So she’d cut it up and put it in the deep freeze in the garage, never once doubting that someday, Dean would get to eat it.

Lily still swore up and down that she could somehow feel Dean. And she had no qualms about stating it; she just knew that he was still alive. It wasn’t that Tony didn’t want to believe her. Dammit, he wanted that more than anything else in the entire world. But it was getting harder and harder to put on that face. His heart was heavy. It couldn’t drag on forever, but at that point, it was beginning to look as though it would never end.

Pete Cimino and several other agents had pulled the Girardi’s phone records. They discovered that both calls came from the same phone number, and perhaps more disturbing, they also discovered that that number had made more than two calls. Most of them were during the day before school was out; a couple had come on Saturday, and one lone call came on a Sunday. It had been going on since the beginning of October. The last call was two days before Dean disappeared.

It almost seemed to Tony as though the person calling hadn’t actually WANTED anyone to answer, since the majority of the calls had taken place during school hours, but then again, you’d have to be pretty crazy to kidnap a teenager so no wonder it made no sense.

Everyone was shocked to learn that the calls came from a landline. It was registered to a Tina Briggs, of Houston. Unfortunately, when the police went to the address of the landline, no one was there. They’d even obtained a warrant, called a blacksmith, and went into the house to search. There was no sign of Dean, the electricity had been turned off, and the place was nearly empty of furniture.

There had been about 50 different fingerprints, but either none of them belonged to Tina Briggs, or Tina Briggs wasn’t in the system. None of them belonged to Dean either, which was another clue that Dean had never been inside that house. The result that surprised Tony the most was the partial print that they found that was a 50% match to one Shelby Ambrose.

It opened up a whole new world of possibilities, knowing that Shelby could somehow be connected to Tina Briggs, but as far as the investigation had turned up so far, only the partial print existed. Tina Briggs herself seemed to have no past, except for utility records at that house. There were no records of any criminal activity. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that she had SOMETHING to do with it, but fitting together how was proving near impossible.

Most frustrating was the fact that there had been zero communication from Dean’s kidnappers, IF that’s what really happened, but Tony still refused to believe that he’d just walked away. That was possibly the hardest part. Had there been a ransom demand, it would’ve been easier; there would have been an obvious WHY. Right now, there was no reason why. And that was scary.

On the eleventh day, Pete, who had basically taken up residence at the Girardi household, came storming into the kitchen. Lily was putting together some tater tot casserole (that no one was going to eat anyway) and she frowned at the look on Pete’s face.

“What’s up?” Tony asked him, and he scowled.

“What do you know about Dean’s biological parents?” Pete didn’t even bother with a greeting.

“Well, we know that his biological mother lost custody four and a half years ago when she was caught beating him up after allowing her boyfriend to rape him,” Lily began.

“And she died of a drug overdose a couple of years ago after losing visitation rights,” Tony picked up where she left off.

“And I hate that he had to go through all of that, but if that’s what had to happen so that he could come to us…” Lily murmured.

“What do you know about the father?” Pete demanded.

“Not much,” Lily replied.

“To our knowledge, Dean never met him,” Tony added. “According to the DCF records, he left Shelby before Dean was born and they were never married.”

“His name is Bradley. Bradley Curtis Hennigan. And you guys had probably better sit down,” Pete said grimly.

 

_____________________________________

 

Lily sat numbly at the kitchen table, dinner forgotten. Tony and Pete sat with her. Roman had wandered in too, and he pulled his chair up close to her so he could rest his head on her shoulder.

“Brad Hennigan was arrested before Dean was born,” Pete began. “Story is that he was never interested in the baby anyway, but he was arrested the August prior to Dean’s birth. A year later, he was charg